Scientists Sniff-Test Gulf Seafood

In the wake of the BP oil spill, scientists are literally following their noses to determine whether Gulf of Mexico seafood is dangerous. Video.

In the wake of the BP oil spill, scientists from a U.S. government lab in Pascagoula, Mississippi, are using a low-tech tool to analyze seafood from the Gulf of Mexico—the human sense of smell. Likening the sniff-testers to wine tasters, researchers say the nose can catch warning signs that chemical tests may miss.

© 2010 National Geographic; partially funded by NSF; field producing and videography by Fritz Faerber



Along the Gulf Coast of the United States, federal and state authorities are helping the region recover from one of the largest oil spills in the planet's history.

And an important part of that effort, both environmentally and economically, is ensuring that the seafood harvested from the Gulf of Mexico is safe to eat.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, along with the FDA and EPA, is overseeing the safety checks.

NOAA ships catch fish and deliver them to the National Seafood Inspection Laboratory in Pascagoula, Mississippi, for testing.

One of the tests involves a low-tech way to analyze the food: smell.

NOAA’s Steven Wilson heads the inspections. He says a nose can be very discerning.

SOUNDBITE: Steven Wilson, Chief Quality Officer, NOAA’s Seafood Inspection Program: “It could be construed that it’s nuanced but in fact it’s very hard science. It’s repeatable, it’s statistical and with the proper training very, very viable, so it’s a good science.”

The lab has been testing Gulf fish samples for months.

Researchers are careful to identify each fish and where it came from, to ensure accurate tracking of any contamination.

SOUNDBITE: Lisa Desfosse, Director, NOAA’s Southeast Fisheries Science Center’s Pascagoula Laboratory: “Every fish is wrapped in aluminum foil with a label inside and wrapped in garbage bags and with a label outside.”

The inspections have helped guide decisions to close portions of the Gulf to fishing, and to reopen others.

More than 200 million gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico between April and September. At the peak of the closures, fishermen were prohibited from more than a third of area waters.

About 13 percent of federal waters still remain closed to fishing.

In the lab, researchers carefully cut samples from each skinned fish. Some will be frozen and shipped to another lab in Seattle for chemical analysis. Others are destined for the smell-test at the Pascagoula lab.

Wilson compares it to wine tasters or other experts in food industries. He stresses the nose is amazingly sensitive.

SOUNDBITE: Steven Wilson, Chief Quality Officer, NOAA’s Seafood Inspection Program: “We can get them sensitive to one part per million contamination in the seafood product. This is not that easy. Even the experts sometimes get a false positive or a false negative. So to deal with that we have a panel. So it’s the individual expertise and the statistical reliability of the panel as a number that make the difference on this.”

Wilson says the chemical lab tests are highly accurate and may be more sensitive than smell – but the nose can catch things that technology may miss.

SOUNDBITE: Steven Wilson, Chief Quality Officer, NOAA’s Seafood Inspection Program: “The sensory looks at the combination. The acceptability, unacceptability. Difference from normal. They look at the whole picture. Chemistry would in fact pick on specific compounds and just explain their levels. Not necessarily acceptable, unacceptable unless you’ve set a mark.”

So far, seafood coming out of the Gulf has been deemed safe.

But, the public’s fear of contamination hits seafood markets and fishermen hard.

Unless consumers trust that commercial fishermen are providing a clean catch, the stigma attached to gulf seafood may last for a while.