BARATARIA, La. -- The inlets that envelop this bayou community extend like fingers on a hand, reaching into the backyards of lifelong fishermen. But the boat behind one fishing family's house sits idle for now, as Tracy Kuhns turns from living off the water to worrying about it.
"The elected officials and the petrochemical companies think the fishermen are just going to let this go away," Kuhns said this week during an interview at her office. "They're used to fishermen allowing them to do this to fishing grounds."
For Kuhns, this time is different. The multicolored pins on her wall tell the story, each inserted into a map of the coast to detail outreach she has made to other towns since the Macondo oil field first began spewing crude into the Gulf of Mexico. This time is different, she believes, because some fishermen are not willing to stay quiet and keep hauling up catch they do not trust.
"This stuff is in my canal, behind my home, where my grandchildren swim all summer long," Kuhns said. She voted for President Obama in 2008, but now she watches in disbelief as his White House serves Gulf seafood to assure the public of its safety. "Come to my house," Kuhns advised Obama, "and I won't pretty it up before you show up. I won't tell you, the seafood I pull out of [the water], that I feel comfortable feeding it to my grandbabies."
Kuhns, who leads the local coastal protection group Louisiana Bayoukeeper, is part of an alliance of seafood industry veterans organizing an ongoing protest against what they believe is a rushed and unwarranted reopening of fishing grounds previously closed due to contamination from the oil gusher. These fishermen see an alarming disconnect between the oil they continue to encounter on the water and the assurances they receive from state and federal officials that their nets and lines can go back in the Gulf.
The use of sensory testing to check fish samples for traces of the 1.8-million-plus gallons of chemical dispersants sprayed by BP PLC during the leak is particularly frustrating to many in Kuhns' camp.
"How can they be doing a smell test to check for toxins in such a minute amount?" asked Chris Bryant, a 15-year commercial fishing veteran from Bayou La Batre, Ala. "There is obviously a reason [dispersants] are considered toxic. Maybe in a minute amount they won't affect us in the short term, but if you continue to ingest them in a period of time, what are going to be the long-term effects? That's something all the commercial fishermen are concerned about."
Those doubts resonate with Steve Wilson, chief quality officer in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's seafood testing program. His team is "just as concerned as the fishermen" about the safety of Gulf catches, Wilson said in an interview conducted by phone from the Mississippi lab where groups of trained sensory testers run through seafood samples. "We don't want product coming into commerce that's unsafe."
Sensory testers take the first look at seafood samples to determine if federal areas of the Gulf -- more than one-third of which were closed to fishing at the height of the oil disaster -- can be reopened or contain too many "hot fish," as testers call tainted samples. Most of the smell testers have more than a decade of experience sniffing out defective food, Wilson explained, with their natural abilities honed by courses and lengthy training.
Oil contamination at the level of 1 part per million would be equivalent to "a golf ball in an Olympic-sized swimming pool," he added. "They're able to smell at that level, but most people can't."
Windex and watermelon
Debate over its dispersant tests may be raging in the Gulf, but NOAA's sensory panel does not use the D-word to describe the samples it examines. Because the odor of the chemical sprays can be very similar to oil -- petroleum distillates are a key ingredient in the Nalco product used by BP -- Wilson said other terms are being used to distinguish between the two.
"We've used descriptors like 'Windex,' 'light chemicals,' 'alcohol,'" he said. Those words can be crucial triggers of befouled fish, because testers are trained using vials of potent scents that can help unite various assessments into a broad conclusion. "You might smell watermelon, you might smell ammonia," Wilson added. "You're trying to get to the smell that's more important."
Should a member of the sensory panel find a sample to contain elements of oil or dispersant, the fishing area in line for reopening must remain closed, according to the protocol developed by NOAA and the Food and Drug Administration to guide seafood testing during the spill. Only one sample his team encountered has failed sensory tests, Wilson said, though the area at issue has reopened for fishing since that May incident.
Guidance issued by NOAA in 2001 calls for post-spill sensory tests to include control groups, in order to make sure panelists' noses can still sense the difference between good and bad samples. Given the higher frequency of seafood sniffing this summer, Wilson said, that guidance has been modified so that individual control samples can be dropped on testers without their knowledge.
"From time to time," he said, NOAA supervisors will put either a known "good" or "spiked" piece of fish into the mix, the latter laced "with an oil-dispersant combination."
After sensory testing is finished, tissue samples for the fish are subjected to lab analyses for the presence of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a chemical class that includes toxic and carcinogenic elements of oil that tend to resist evaporation.
The chemical tests are done using composite samples of several species of fish, such as tuna and grouper. Because finfish have similar abilities to metabolize oil, Wilson said, "if you compile the sample correctly, it speeds up the process so we can get fisheries open" or keep them closed without paying up to several hundred dollars for each individual test.
A community divided
Not every Gulf fisherman shares Kuhns' and Bryant's fears about the viability of government seafood tests. Some locals whisper that skeptics are acting out of concern for their bottom line, preferring to earn a steady paycheck from BP for cleanup work to the uncertain fate of selling fish that consumers may still view as tainted.
Before staging a press conference last week outside a listening session held by Ray Mabus, Obama's Gulf restoration point main, Kuhns and her allies addressed that issue head-on. "Fishermen would rather work cleaning the severely damaged Gulf than selling tainted seafood," they wrote in a release outlining their goals.
Oysterman Mike Voisin, CEO of Motivated Seafood in Houma, La., questioned the wisdom of airing such critical sentiments. "Don't hurt the market by saying, 'I don't want to feed it to my kids,'" he advised. "They're just hurting themselves."
Voisin, who says his processing has been cut nearly in half since the oil leak began, joins NOAA outreach calls to members of the Gulf seafood industry and displays a resulting knowledge of the ins and outs of testing.
Noting that the government's assessment of the potential risk of eating contaminated seafood assumes an annual consumption level more than 10 times higher than that of the average American, Voisin said: "We're still meeting those requirements. If anybody's finding anything out there, they should report it immediately. ... I don't believe the state would open areas if they weren't confident."
Part of the conflict on the ground appears rooted in a lack of communication between the government and members of a community that, while close-knit, is also fiercely independent and spread throughout remote corners of the coast.
"I've heard more than one local person say, as far as they know, that there's not a test for dispersant" in seafood, said Rebecca Templeton, environmental outreach coordinator at Bayou Grace Community Services in Chauvin, La. "Even as someone who's trying to gather this information, I don't know what kind of testing is being done ... if I knew those details, it would be reassuring to me."
NOAA is working on a framework for the chemical analyses of dispersant contamination that Kuhns and her fellow fishermen are calling for, but an agency spokeswoman said it is difficult to predict the time frame for development of the tests.
Meanwhile, Louisiana shrimping season is set to start next week, and Voisin said he expects more state-level waters to reopen by that time. But Kuhns' boat is unlikely to make another fishing journey in the near future.
Her next step is continuing to unite with like-minded fishermen to protect the waters they love from the threat of abandonment, by BP and Washington, before the fallout from the oil leak is truly contained. "They need to be honest about this," she said. "It's not going to go away."