The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association announced last week that it was reopening one-third of previously closed Gulf of Mexico fishing waters since no oil had been observed in the area for over 30 days. The 26,388 square miles of the Gulf was reopened to both commercial and recreational fishing on Thursday under a re-opening protocol agreed to by NOAA, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the Gulf states. According to a NOAA press release, U.S. Coast Guard observers had not seen oil in the area, which is about 190 miles southwest of the Deepwater Horizon/BP wellhead, since mid-June and trajectory models showed the area to be at low risk for future exposure to oil.  Fish caught in the area and tested by NOAA experts showed no signs of contamination. Most of the fishing will occur about 220 miles from the wellhead, along the west Florida shelf. “Following the best science for this re-opening provides important assurance to the American people that the seafood they buy is safe and protects the Gulf seafood brand and the many people who depend on it for their livelihoods,” said Commerce Secretary Gary Locke. Jane Lubchenco, under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator, stated, “NOAA is working to protect public safety while minimizing harm to the fishing industry.  We are confident that seafood caught in this area is, and will continue to be, free from contamination.” NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement and the Coast Guard continue to actively patrol federal waters that have been closed to fishing as a result of the BP oil spill.  Since the first closure was announced on May 2, the agencies’ collaborative actions have led to 13 illegal catches being abandoned at sea. According to a NOAA press release, “NOAA’s first Notice of Violation and Assessment in connection to the oil spill was issued in response to a June 22 violation.  The shrimp trawler involved has been assessed a $15,000 penalty for fishing in the portion of the Gulf of Mexico closed due to the BP oil spill.”  The agency is pursuing additional cases. “Stringent enforcement of the fishing closed areas is critically important to ensure product safety and consumer confidence in Gulf seafood during the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill event,” said Eric Schwaab, NOAA assistant administrator for NOAA’s Fisheries Service. “We share the fishing community’s concern that their catch be recognized as not coming from the closed area and that it is free of oil contamination.” Both owners and operators of vessels fishing in the closed areas are subject to the seizure of their catch, gear, and vessel; civil penalties of up to $140,000 per violation; and permit sanctions up to permanent revocation of their permit.  The NOAA Office of Legal Enforcement has worked with the fishing community to notify boats of changes in the closed area through Vessel Monitoring System messages, email alerts, radio transmissions, and phone calls. yellowfin-tuna-featured.jpg“Our outreach and enforcement efforts are working. Our agents, Coast Guard, and state partners are doing outstanding work associated with the spill, and we stand ready to assist any fisherman that may have questions,” said Hal Robbins, special agent in charge of Office of Legal Enforcement’s Southeast Division, which includes the Gulf. “The vast majority of fishermen are staying out of the closed area and understand the importance of ensuring the high quality of seafood from the Gulf.” NOAA has been testing fish, including grouper, snapper, tuna, and mahi mahi from the area and has not detected oil or dispersant odors or flavors in the samples.  Chemical analysis showed that potential contaminant levels were “well below the levels of concern.” “We are pleased today to be able to fully support the reopening of these waters,” said Dr. Margaret Hamburg, commissioner of food and drugs. “We know it is important to get people back to fishing quickly–this industry is the backbone of the Gulf region economy. At the same time, we need the American public to be confident in the seafood coming from the Gulf, and the testing that has been done as part of the agreed upon protocols has not indicated any level of concern.” NOAA and FDA are working together on broad-scale seafood sampling that includes sampling seafood from inside and outside the closure area, as well as dockside- and market-based sampling. Map:  Reopened fishing area (in hashmarks) as of 6:00 p.m. (EDT) July 22, 2010. Closure area may be updated daily as necessary.  Credit: NOAA