Jeremy Alford / Houma Courier
BATON ROUGE — As families around south Louisiana prepare local holiday favorites like oyster dressing, issues involving the cleanliness of Gulf mollusks in the wake of the BP oil spill are being dredged back up.
This go around, oysters harvested from the Gulf of Mexico find an unlikely ally in the oil and gas industry.
Don Briggs, president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, describes Louisiana oysters as “resilient critters” that have been “disturbed very little as a result of the spill.”
He cites a 2011 University of New Orleans study and a research paper from a scientific journal.
Briggs also posed a pointed question: “What do these studies have to do with the oil and gas industry?”
The oyster and energy industries are sometimes at odds during legislative session as commercial harvesters and processors seek restoration for any effects oil and gas activity might have on water bottoms and their crops.
“For going on three years, the oyster industry has formed task forces and has been holding lengthy meetings to determine the extent of the damage the spill has caused on the oyster industry,” Briggs said. “The more damages that the oyster industry can prove happened as a result of the spill, the more they can demand in financial restitution from the industry, BP specifically.”
Mike Voisin, of Motivatit Seafoods in Houma, said the oyster industry doesn’t get to decide which damages are legitimate.
That is being decided through the federal Natural Resource Damage Assessment process and payments awarded by BP as a result of a civil lawsuit settlement.
Additionally, Voisin said many in the industry steered clear of blaming their challenges on the 2010 oil spill alone.
“It was from the freshwater diversion systems, there had been hurricanes leading up to that point, and we went through those spring floods,” Voisin said. “And by the time the spill happened, oysters were also in their reproductive stage, at their weakest point.”
Briggs said the University of New Orleans study released by oyster biologist Thomas Soniat and subsequently reported on by The Times-Picayune earlier this month “discovered that the oysters at oil-exposed areas in Louisiana revealed no contamination or biological implications of exposure six months beyond the 2010 oil spill.”
A paper published by Environmental Science and Technology likewise found that “oysters simply consumed very little oil if any at all,” he said, adding that it described the long-term effects as difficult to quantify.
“The local oyster population within the spill zone, according to numerous researchers, consumed very little oil or dispersants,” Briggs concluded.
Voisin said there may be more research to conduct regarding dispersants — the topical solution that was sprayed on the water to abate the escaped crude — but there isn’t much to debate about the scientific findings touted by Briggs.
“We’ve always said that oil won’t kill us,” said Voisin, a member of the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission.
He said that oily waters, however, can “flavor” oysters under certain conditions.
Since the BP oil spill, differing studies on oysters have been conducted.
One, carried out by another team of scientists headed by California Academy of Sciences Dr. Peter Roopnarine, found higher concentrations of heavy metals like vanadium, cobalt and chromium in oysters after the spill than before.
Traces were found in shells, gills and muscle tissue, but the research is still in its early stages.
Roopnarine’s team began the process earlier this year of increasing its specimens and repeating their analyses.
Plus there’s only limited data available to explain how such heavy metals can affect human consumption and the food chain in general — a void that Roopnarine hopes his team will fill.
Jeremy Alford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.