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32 percent of federal waters in Gulf now are closed to fishing

Scientists have begun a new phase in their effort to test seafood from areas of the BP oil spill.

MinnPost reported in late May that seafood prices are likely to climb in Minnesota as a result of BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

At that time, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had closed about 20 percent of the Gulf to fishing as a precautionary measure to ensure that seafood from that area will remain safe for consumers to eat.

Here’s an update: About 32 percent of the federal waters in the Gulf now are closed to fishing — including areas near the coasts of Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida panhandle as well as a good share of Louisiana’s coast. You can see details here.

Further, NOAA has expanded its sampling of seafood for safety testing, Science magazine’ ScienceInsider reported.

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Initially, federal seafood toxicologists had raced to sample clean sites ahead of the advancing slick in order to establish baseline contamination rates before the crude oil hits.

Since April 28, experts at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center near Seattle have analyzed 60 samples, mostly red snapper, sent to them by Gulf scientists. They are looking for oil and the presence of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, the most worrisome of toxins in oil.

As expected, all but one showed no contaminants, and “that one is almost certainly a false positive,” physiologist Walton W. Dickhoff told ScienceInsider.

Now the sampling effort is entering a new phase as scientists begin testing seafood from oiled areas. NOAA is planning to take samples from shellfish and finned fish from oily waters while also continuing to stay ahead of the advancing slick.

“We learned our lesson from Hurricane Katrina,” Dickhoff said, recalling the series of small oil spills the storm caused and the effects on the seafood industry there.

“We were testing seafood for a year after Katrina—and they looked safe [to eat]. The problem was we didn’t have samples we’d taken beforehand to compare them to,” he told ScienceInsider.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and state inspectors also are testing the seafood, the Associated Press reported.

A good share of the shrimp for sale in the United States is farmed. And a big share also comes from Costa Rica, Ecuador and other places that are far away from the oil slick.

But some consumers prefer the wild-caught stuff. And they want it to come from waters as close to home as possible.

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In the wild, brown shrimp spawn offshore in January, February and March, Martin Bourgeois of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries told the AP.  Once the eggs hatch, the larva count on prevailing winds and currents to carry them to the Louisiana marsh, where they grow until it’s time for them to swim back offshore to spawn. May is the peak fishing season for brown shrimp.

White shrimp season begins in August and continues until December, AP said. They spawn closer to shore, but otherwise the one-year life cycle is mostly the same.

Sources at Coastal Seafoods in Minneapolis (major restaurant supplier in the Upper Midwest) and Lunds and Byerly’s told Minnpost that most of the fresh seafood they sell in the Twin Cities doesn’t come from the Gulf.

But as the disaster drags on, consumers also will be wondering about the safety of processed shrimp and other seafood.

Hopefully, all of this testing will provide some solid answers to their safety questions.