Many people were affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that occurred five years ago today, even communities that didn’t have oil spilled directly onto their shorelines.
Hundreds of thousands of multi-generational families from Texas and Louisiana, to Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, call the Gulf Coast home. Many coastal residents are commercial, recreational, and subsistence fishers, and they depend on local seafood harvests to put protein on the table for their families and neighbors. It’s the basis for their regional economy.
My involvement with the oil spill disaster came in response to concerns from coastal residents and community partners that have previously worked with our research collaborators at the University of Florida. Coastal residents were suffering job losses and mental health stress, and they voiced concerns about seafood safety.
In response to community concerns, my colleagues and I developed a research consortium, called Healthy Gulf Healthy Communities (HGHC), led by Dr J Glenn Morris at the University of Florida, which was awarded support through the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a branch of the National Institutes of Health. The team included academics with expertise in individual and family mental health, community-based social vulnerability and resiliency, and seafood safety, which is my area of research.
Outreach experts within the consortium fostered communication between the academics and the community and helped to establish a framework for working with individuals and communities in everything from data collection to tailoring communication for different audiences.
The goal of this community-based participatory research program was to fill critical gaps left by federal and state studies. We gathered data on potential oil spill-related human health risk in seafood, focusing on local, inshore harvests that may not have been assessed by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
We tested locally caught fish to understand the impact on public health. If there were seafood species from any locations that posed a human health risk from oil spill contaminants, people would need to know that. Alternatively, if the seafood was truly safe, as safe as NOAA and FDA claimed, people needed to know that, too.
But more importantly, people would need to believe it.
Creating a local picture
Rather than look at the impact of the spill on offshore fishing as NOAA did, we looked at fish, shrimp, blue crabs, and oysters that were being harvested and eaten by local fishers. We processed and conducted analytical toxicology on seafood portions that we knew many Gulf residents consume: fish fillets, whole crab, whole shrimp and whole oysters. And we processed them as individuals—without pooling—so that we could see the variation between samples at different sites, and understand the range of contamination (if present) without diluting potential outliers.
The efforts required an integrated, transdisciplinary approach. A team of collaborating scientists supported my seafood safety efforts with expertise in aquatic pathobiology, analytical toxicology and the chemistry of hydrocarbons, food science and human nutrition, geography and GIS, biostatistics, risk assessment and community outreach.
We couldn’t assume anything. It was important to know exactly what kind of seafood folks were eating in different communities.
In order to use any potential contaminant data to develop meaningful community-specific risk assessment, we needed to integrate exposure data. Instead of relying on national statistics for seafood consumption and body weight values for Gulf Coast residents, we conducted our own surveys to discern what types of seafood people ate, how often they ate it and their typical portion sizes.
We collected seafood samples with the help of local fishers. We interacted with community members on piers and bridges bridges, from inshore small boats and from fishing tournaments. There were lots of interactions with lots of people at fishing tournaments, in American Legion lodges and community clubs, seafood festivals, science cafes, and seafood worker meetings.
We learned that different communities are different. People catch, harvest, and consume seafood differently based on availability, preferences, and economics. Also, many Gulf coastal residents consume more seafood than national statistics might indicate. A lot more.
Stressed communities, safe fish
It was interesting to do community-based science alongside social scientists, and it was disconcerting to learn community concerns from the residents who were challenged, suffering, concerned, and angry about their situations after the spill. I wanted to contribute needed solutions and make a difference, even a small one, in these historically vital and vibrant communities that represent a unique way of life along the Gulf Coast.
My social science colleagues from our consortium team discovered that there was higher-than-expected mental illness, substance abuse, and family strife in the aftermath of the spill. Loss of jobs and income appeared to be more important drivers for psychological stress than physical oiling of the shoreline. Thankfully, this trend appears to have leveled off recently and is showing signs of improvement.
Compensation from BP was provided to people and businesses that relied on Gulf resources affected by the spill. Parts of the compensation process were divisive for communities. For example, payment inequities within and between certain communities fueled people’s anger.
We learned that community cohesiveness and the degree of individual connectedness (how well folks are networked) had an impact on individual stress levels, anxiety and depression. It also had an effect on the degree to which the community was resilient and could come up with strategies for coping with stress.
Analytical chemistry data from more than 1,000 fish, shrimp, crab, and oyster samples shows only background levels of contaminants that could possibly be related to oil. In other words, seafood appears as clean now as it was prior to the oil spill. It was reassuring that our data is not dissimilar to those produced by NOAA, the FDA, and other agencies and institutions doing similar studies in other parts of the Gulf.
There remain many basic science questions to be answered regarding the chemical signature of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in seafood, and the fate of this oil in the environment. Nevertheless, the basic answer remains positive: we don’t see evidence that the oil spill has created significant seafood-related risks.
Efforts on this project have fostered reflection about my personal role as an environmental and public health scientist. Several concepts came into focus that became guiding principles for me: honesty and transparency are important in my interactions with other scientists; managers and community members made me human in the eyes of the community; and humans are easier to have meaningful interactions with than white coats in ivory towers.
It takes time to get to know people and communities—and for them to get to know you. Not everyone will agree, but all reasonable voices need to be heard. Never promise more than you can deliver. Scientists can contribute to social capital within communities.
I also now have greater clarity on our nation’s (and the world’s) dependency on energy. Although lessons learned may not fully prepare us for the next oil spill, which is likely to be different in some way, perhaps we can be more resilient as communities, and be willing to engage with our governments and industries to better ensure the safety of our precious and irreplaceable coastal resources.