GULFOFMEXICO -- At the height of the oil spill, more than one third of the Gulf's federal waters were closed as a precaution, amid fears of what the oil could be doing to the water and marine life.
Since then, 40,000 square miles of the Gulf have reopened, though the initial closures prompted calls for testing, especially of seafood.
'We're making good progress and sampling very, very carefully, making sure areas that we are reopening is in fact safe to reopen and that the seafood is free of contaminants,' said Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Multiple agencies are involved in that seafood testing. However, the job mainly falls to NOAA, in conjunction with the Food and Drug Administration. Yet, now, some independent scientists are expressing concerns that the seafood testing falls short of being thorough -- even though government officials have said Gulf seafood is safe to eat.
When Dr. William Sawyer was asked whether those safety claims could be backed up with the testing done so far, he replied: 'Absolutely not, especially with respect to Louisiana shrimp.'
Sawyer is a Florida-based toxicologist, hired by a New Orleans law firm to look at test results of water and seafood samples. Some tests revealed elevated levels of hydrocarbons in seafood. He said what concerns him most, though, is an FDA map, showing where shrimp samples were collected in July, in the waters around St. Bernard Parish.
'Almost all of the trawl samples were collected near shore, that is, within one-mile of shore, or in the bayous,' Sawyer said. 'Only one trawl sample was collected offshore.'
The samples fell within the safe range and that area of water was eventually reopened. However, Sawyer believes more testing was needed.
'FDA has not followed methodology that is generally accepted by science and instituted by the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] and that requires a reasonable random sampling of the area, with sufficient samples to statistically determine what is present,' he said.
On Monday, officials reiterated their commitment to testing Gulf seafood as they toured a NOAA research vessel in St. Mary Parish.
'Just within the last few weeks alone, we pulled over a thousand areas of opened areas, and not one of those samples came back with a negative finding,' said U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Paul Zunkunft, federal on-scene coordinator for the oil spill. 'This continues to be and will be for some time, the most sampled seafood on the face of the earth.'
An online interactive map shows where the testing has been done so far. Still, some local officials had questions about the testing.
'I never saw any samples taken anywhere closer than the mouth of the Atchafalaya. Why is that?' St. Mary Parish President Paul Naquin asked to Rear Adm. Zunkunft.
Zunkunft replied: 'That's what we're working right now.'
NOAA scientists on Monday said they are in constant communication with their fleet of vessels now conducting testing in the Gulf. The reason for that is to help determine where the ships should be sent to conduct tests, based on where any spill-related anomalies are found in the Gulf. To take a look at the interactive map showing the testing sites so far, click here.