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Transcript - Press Briefing by NOAA Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco on the Re-Opening of Closed Fishing Areas

GULF COAST—Dr. Jane Lubchenco, Administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, provided a briefing on the re-opening of closed fishing areas in the Gulf of Mexico, Thursday at 5:30 p.m. EDT.

full transcript of the call follows:

Jane Lubchenco:  Thanks, Shannon. Good afternoon, everyone, and thanks for joining us today. I’m delighted to be able to be here to talk about a very important announcement.  NOAA is re-opening a third of the overall closed fishing area of the Gulf of Mexico after a consultation with our partner, the Food and Drug Administration—and under a reopening protocol agreed to by NOAA, the FDA and the Gulf States. 

The areas to be reopened lie Southeast of the overall area.  You will find the coordinates and a map on the NOAA home page at  The reopening becomes effective today at 6 p.m. Eastern Time.  NOAA’s decision today to reopen 2,000 or I’m sorry 26,388—that’s 26,388 square miles of Gulf waters to commercial and recreational fishing is the right decision for fisherman, and it’s the right decision for American consumers.  It gives fishermen access to important fishing grounds, and because NOAA followed a reopening protocol agreed to by the FDA, NOAA and the Gulf States, it also protects consumers and helps prevent contaminated seafood from entering the market place.

At the time the area was originally closed, there was a concern that the light sheen observed in the Northeastern portion of the area might enter (inaudible) a loop separating towards the Florida Keys.  That fear, however, never materialized.  So NOAA, following the protocol that protects consumers, and by extension the reputation of seafood taken from the Gulf, began the process of evaluation the area for reopening.  Since mid-June NOAA data has shown no oil in the area and the United States Coast Guard observers flying over the area in the last 30 days have also not seen any oil.

Additionally, trajectory models show the area is at a low risk for future exposure to oil, and fish caught in the area and tested by NOAA experts have shown no signs of contamination.  Between June 23 and July 5, NOAA collected samples of fish including grouper, snapper, tuna and mahi mahi from the area where the heaviest fishing will take place.  Sensory and chemical testing following the methodology and procedures in the reopening protocols show no detectable oil or dispersant odors or flavors.

And the results of chemical analysis were well below the level of concern.  NOAA will continue to take samples for testing on the newly re-opened area, and the agency has also implemented dock site sampling to test fish caught throughout the Gulf by commercial fisherman.  In addition, the NOAA research vessel the Nancy Foster took water samples in and around the area proposed for re-opening in early- to mid-July.  No surface sheen was observed and no unusual reading potentially indicative of oil were obtained during these activities.

 Fishery areas—fishery area closures remain the first line of defense to prevent contaminated seafood from entering the market place.  NOAA continues to work closely with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the states to ensure seafood safety.  NOAA and FDA are working together on broad scale seafood sampling, which include seafood from inside and outside the closure area as well as dockside and market-based sampling.

NOAA will continue to evaluate the need for fishery closures as potential reopening based on the evolving nature of the spill, and we will reopen closed areas as appropriate.  And with that I would be happy to take any questions.

Operator: As a reminder if you would like to ask a question you may do so by pressing star 1 on your telephone keypad.

You have a question from Elizabeth Grossman with First Highland Journal.

Elizabeth Grossman:  Yes, thanks for taking my question. I was wondering if you could tell us how NOAA might be sampling for oil deeper in the water column.  What you mentioned is surface oil and oil sheen, and I just wonder if some testing is being done further underwater to get a sense of the safety of fish coming from that area?

Jane Lubchenco: Since we’ve had a number of research cruisers out on the water both ships—NOAA ships—and many of our partner ships, with universities for example, and have been doing extensive testing for sub surface oil to see if it’s there and if so what concentrations and where.  And what we’re finding is that there is surface oil in very, right near the vicinity of the well head and as one goes farther away from the well head the oil is highly dispersed.  By the time you get out to the area where the fishery opening area is there is virtually undetectable.

Elizabeth Grossman: Thank you.

Shannon Gilson: We’ll take the next question, please. Just remember to state your name and your outlet.

Operator: Your next question comes from Steven Norris from WPMI.

Steven Norris: Steven Norris, WPMI, Mobile, Alabama.  We have talked to several fishermen today in our area.  We thought they would be excited about areas reopening, but they were actually more concerned saying this decision was made to soon and wondering who would be held responsible if seafood caught from these waters being reopened does make someone sick?  If that does happen, who will be held responsible?

Jane Lubchenco: We have taken extraordinary precautions to ensure the safety of the seafood for American consumers.  We share with the fisherman of the region and many others in the area a keen desire to have only safe seafood be in the market place.  The protocols that NOAA and FDA and the States agreed upon are appropriately precautionary, and we have followed all of the steps in that protocol to ensure that the seafood is in fact safe.

The testing is very rigorous testing, and we are able to detect very, very small amounts of potential contaminants in seafood, and every single one of the samples that was tested from this region is clean.  We will continue to sample in the area, and as I mentioned, we will also be doing dock side sampling and market sampling because everyone wants to make sure that it’s completely safe.

Because there has been no oil in this area for, the area that was oiled has been free from oil for over a month now and much of the area was, never had oil in it.  And so, for this particular area, we feel very confident that the seafood is completely safe to eat.  I would feel completely comfortable eating any seafood from this area that we are opening today.

Shannon Gilson: Next question.

Operator: Your next question comes from Larry Edwardson from National Public Radio.

Larry Edwardson: Hi there. Can you clarify, does this have any impact on the closures of the state waters within the three mile limit? And what steps do the states have to take in order to open those coastal waters?

Jane Lubchenco: I missed the beginning of your question and I, do I understand your asking what the protocols for state waters are and who has that responsibility?

Larry Edwardson: Yes.  Does this have any effect on …

Jane Lubchenco: The states themselves—so NOAA has responsibilities for federal waters or fisheries in federal waters. The states have responsibilities in their own waters, and they are supposed to follow the agreed upon protocols to do any re-opening.  The Food and Drug Administration will be working with states to assist them with testing, but the states are ultimately responsible for the openings in their state waters. 

And Shannon, I’m taking off right now I hope we wont lose the signal. If we do, we’ll call back in. So far, I think we’re good.

Shannon Gilson: As you can all hear Dr. Lubchenco is on a plane about to take off, but she’s on a satellite phone so we hope we can take a few more questions.  So operator next question.

Operator: Your next question comes from Chris Kirkham with the Times.

Chris Kirkham: Yes. Hi, this is Chris Kirkham with the Times Picayune in New Orleans. But my question also had to do with the state waters, mostly had to do with the question of—I  know your saying basically the opening was predicated on the fact that there hadn’t been oil there for a definitive period of time, but obviously the state waters you’re going to have oil sort of washing in and out with the tides for a long time, so I’m wondering does an area have to be completely clear of oil for say a month in order to even think about reopening it? Or are there some ways to work around that with sampling so that even if a tar ball shows up somewhere that the commercial fisheries could potentially be reopened on state waters?

Jane Lubchenco: Areas will need to be free from oil or sheen for a period of time, and then we will go in and start doing sampling. We would if it were federal waters (inaudible) state waters.  And so I think the criteria are both that it has been oil free for some time and also there is a very low probability that oil will reenter the area if there was oil before.  And then the third important part of the protocol is taking samples of them.

And so it is, I believe, an appropriately precautionary set of criteria. And again, the states agreed upon this with the FDA and with NOAA.  So it’s a combination of oil free, not likely to become oiled, and then the testing, both sensory and chemical testing, that has to confirm that any fish from the area are not contaminated.  No one of those criteria would be enough—all three of them have to be satisfied.

Shannon Gilson: Next question, please.

Operator: Your next question comes from Melissa Cook from Freelance Reporter.

Melissa Cook: Yes, my question is this: regarding disbursement, since you’re not chemically testing for disbursements you’re relying on odor and flavor testing. How do you know whether or not the waters that have been reopened contain traces of the disbursement in them?

Jane Lubchenco: The sensory testing that is done is very very sensitive. The testing allows us to detect extraordinarily minute parts per million of compounds, and the sensory testing was done for both oil products and for disbursements and all the samples came up completely clean. 

The chemical testing that was done was for oil, and that too confirms the sensory testing, but the sensory testing is just very, very sensitive and I feel completely comfortable that the seafood that has been through that rigorous testing is free of any contamination.

Shannon Gilson: Next question.  Operator if we don’t have any additional questions.

All right everybody thank you very much for joining the call.  Thank you Dr. Lubchenco.

Jane Lubchenco: Thank you very much.

Operator: Thank you, this concludes today’s conference call, you may now disconnect.