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Transcript -NOAA Administrator Briefing to Discuss the Reopening of Federal Waters Along Western Louisiana

Below is a transcript from Fridays teleconference press briefing by Administrator for NOAA, Dr. Jane Lubchenco, to discuss the reopening of federal waters along western Louisana

A downloadable audio file of the conference is available here.

August 27, 2010

10 a.m. EDT

Kevin Griffis:    Great, thank you.  Thank you, everyone, for joining us today.  This is Kevin Griffis with the Department of Commerce, and Im joined today by Jane Lubchenco, the undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere.  She is going to announce today the opening of some closed federal waters and the steps that were taking to reach that decision.

 And so without further ado, Im going to hand it over to Dr. Lubchenco.

Jane Lubchenco:     Thanks, Kevin.    Good morning, everyone.  Thanks for joining us.  Im happy to announce today the reopening of 4,281 square miles of federal waters in the northwestern corner of the federal closed area.  This is an area thats just off the western coast of Louisiana.  Todays reopening represents 7.4 percent of the currently closed area. 

 NOAAs decision today to reopen waters to commercial and recreational fishing we believe is the right one for fishermen and for American consumers.  It gives fishermen access to important fishing grounds.  And because NOAA followed a reopening protocol also agreed to by the FDA and the gulf states, it also protects consumers and helps prevent contaminated seafood from entering the marketplace.

That reopening protocol entails a three-pronged approach.  The first condition for reopening in an area is that oil is not present and not expected to be present in the foreseeable future.  Second, samples must pass sensory analysis.  And, third, they must pass chemical analysis.  The area that we are opening today for fishing meets all three of these criteria. 

On July 18, NOAA data showed no oil in the area.  Light sheen was observed on July 29, and none since then.  Trajectory models show that 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 July 26th and July 29, NOAA sampled the area for both shrimp and finfish, including mackerel and snapper.  Sensory analyses were performed on 41 samples and chemical analyses on 125 specimens.  Sensory analyses found no detectable oil or dispersant, odors, or flavors, and results of chemical analyses were well below the levels of concern.

But we believe our sampling work is not done.  To continue to ensure that the seafood from this and other open areas in the gulf is free of contaminants, NOAA will continue to test seafood.  We are also continuing dock-side and market-based sampling in partnership with the FDA.

When the BP Deepwater Horizon crisis first began, I met with recreational and commercial fishermen throughout the region and with consumer advocates.  We pledged to stand shoulder to shoulder with Gulf Coast fishermen and their families during these difficult times and to do everything possible to protect the integrity and the safety of seafood reaching the marketplace.

We are fulfilling that promise, and I can assure you that NOAA will continue to work aggressively to keep seafood safe, get fishermen back on the water doing what they love, and restore the gulf ecosystem that supports this areas special way of life.

 Thanks.  And Id be happy to take any questions.

 Operator:        Thank you...

 Kevin Griffis:    Thank you – sorry.  Thank you, Dr. Lubchenco.

 Operator:         And you would like to ask questions at this time?

 Kevin Griffis:    We have Eileen Fleming from National Public Radio.

 Eileen Fleming:   Dr. Lubchenco (inaudible) Jindal said this morning that the seafood for Louisiana is tested seven times, which is more than much of the country, which is not tested at all.  I was wondering if you could talk about those seven tests and what the status is for testing for chemical dispersants.

Jane Lubchenco:     Eileen, the states, including Louisiana, have responsibility for regulating fisheries in their state waters, which for Louisiana is from the shore to three miles out.  NOAA has responsibility for regulating the fisheries in federal waters, which is from three miles all the way out to 200 nautical miles from the shore.

The protocols that we agreed upon between NOAA and FDA and the states are ones that we are all following.  For federal waters, which was the announcement that we are making today, NOAA does the sampling, and NOAA does the testing, and then we turn those results over to FDA, whos responsible for certifying the safety of seafood.  So just to clarify, in federal waters, NOAA is responsible for opening or closing waters, but FDA certifies whether the seafood is safe. 

In state waters, the states do the sampling.  They turn them over to NOAA and FDA for testing.  And then, again, FDA does the certification.

So what I can describe to you are the sampling protocols that NOAA uses for federal waters, but I cannot describe any extra sampling that the states are doing.  So the seven types of samples that the governor was referring to, Im not sure quite what that means.

The states agreed to follow the same protocols that we do.  And thats what we have done and will continue to do.

 Operator:  At this time, I would like to inform everyone, in order to ask a question, press star, then the number one on your telephone keypad. 

 Your next question comes from the line of Harry Weber with the Associated Press.

 Harry Weber:    Morning, Dr. Lubchenco.  If my math is correct, the reopening of these waters will leave about 53,700 square miles of federal waters still closed.  Is that correct?  Can you give us an update?

 Jane Lubchenco: I – yes.  The area that remains closed is 48,114 square miles.  And thats...

 Harry Weber:    And that stretches from where to where?

 Jane Lubchenco:   Twenty percent of federal waters in the gulf.

 Harry Weber:  That represents 20 percent of federal waters in the gulf?

 Jane Lubchenco:     Correct.  So at the – we began closing waters when – in early May when there was oil and expanded that closed area through time as the oil was moving outward from the wellhead.  At its height, the maximum closed area was 37 percent of the federal waters in the gulf.  And thats 88,522 square miles.

Once the oil was no longer flowing from the well, and once the oil began to dissipate, we have been reopening areas.  This is the third area that we are announcing today.  The first one was opened July 22nd, and that was off the Florida peninsula.  And then on August 10th, we reopened another area off the Florida panhandle.  And so this one off western Louisiana is the third area to be reopened.

And what were doing is sort of nibbling at the edges, if you will.  Areas that have been free from oil for the longest time and that were oiled the least are teed up first for consideration for reopening.  We go in and do sampling of seafood from those areas that we are considering, and then if they pass the tests that I described in my opening comments, that area will be reopened.

So currently, we have an area that is just about 20 percent of federal waters still closed. 

 Operator:  Your next question comes from the line of Mario Garcia with NBC News.

 Mario Garcia:  (inaudible) Lubchenco, thanks for taking my question.  Just moving forward, the systems you described in place thus far, obviously, (involved with) large and constant flux.  What is the protocol for testing, for instance, in areas that are reopened we continue to test to see the status? 

And then moving, you know, much forward or slightly more forward than just, you know, these waters, fishermen we talk to here – some of the concern, obviously, is that, you know, the adult fish now that could be caught may or may not be OK, but, you know, theres concern about future generations and once, you know, maybe getting into the soil or, you know, in the larvae, et cetera.  What will the longer-term testing entail?

 Jane Lubchenco:    Thanks for those questions, Mario.  Those are great ones.  We will – we are continuing to test in areas that we have reopened.  And well continue to do so.

In other words, in parallel to testing areas that are under consideration for reopening, we will also be retesting areas that have already been opened.

In addition to that, we are doing dock-side sampling.  In other words, when commercial vessels bring seafood into the port, NOAA is doing sampling there as an extra check.  And FDA is, in addition to that, doing samples of seafood thats in the market.  So thats the answer to your first question.  

The long-term sampling and long-term potential impacts is an area that is under active investigation.  We have been and will continue to do extensive monitoring of oil in the gulf, which is now primarily subsurface and appears to be biodegrading relatively rapidly, but the oil that is subsurface and surface oil might have had – might have already affected the young juvenile stages. 

And we remain concerned about the impacts that that might have and are continuing to evaluate that very, very closely.  We feel completely confident that the seafood that is in the market now is safe for human consumption, safe and free from contaminants from the spill, and we will continue to investigate the longer-term impacts this spill may have had.

We are in the process of working closely with many of the academic institutions in the region and elsewhere and many of our federal partners in designing some very aggressive short-term and long-term monitoring and evaluation.  And, of course, part of our responsibility is to evaluate the long-term impacts of the spill.

So we wont have the answers to all of that for quite some time, but are working very carefully and aggressively on that.

 Kevin Griffis:  OK.  I think we have time for a couple more questions.

 Operator:  Your next question comes from the line of (Laurie Wegler) with Examiner.com.

 (Laurie Wiegler):     Hi, yes, its (Laurie Wiegler).  Thank you very much, Dr. Lubchenco.  I actually just filed a story today about the ongoing expedition of Oceana out in the gulf, which is investigating deepwater, subsea oil plume, and so on and so forth, and taking tests regularly.

I wonder, since the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill is unprecedented, what model are you using as a gauge that tells you that X number of tests – that pass the tests make it OK to open these waters?

 Jane Lubchenco:    Our testing is designed to give us a representative sample of the type of seafood that would be caught in any particular area under consideration for reopening and to sample enough individuals of those different species so that we think that that sample is more than adequate to give us information about if there is any contamination.

We know that we can detect contaminants.  We know that we can measure – we can detect them and measure them.  And the areas that we have reopened have shown they have all passed our tests.

You mentioned that this area or that this spill is unprecedented.  That is absolutely the case.  And it is for that very reason that we have – that we are proceeding very cautiously.  We are focusing squarely on making sure that seafood is free of contaminants from the spill.  And we are engaging with many of our academic and federal partners in a very substantial effort to continue to monitor and understand the impacts of this spill.  And that will likely take a number of years to fully appreciate and understand what impacts have transpired.

 Kevin Griffis:  All right.  We have time for one more question.

 Operator:   Your last question comes from the line of (Ken Cooper) with Orange Beach News.

(Ken Cooper):  Hi, and thank you for taking my question.  I was wondering if you have any kind of time estimate on when the waters off of Alabama coast along the Florida panhandle would be open.

Jane Lubchenco:  (Ken), I dont have a precise date for that.  That is an area that has been free of oil for some time.  And we have been sampling and running those tests.

I know that that area is of keen interest to many people.  And so we are proceeding as quickly as we can, but also as cautiously as we can to make sure that any seafood from that area is completely safe.  So what I can tell you is that that area has been sampled and that we will let you know as soon as we have any news to report on that.

Kevin Griffis:  All right.  Thank you, Dr. Lubchenco.

Jane Lubchenco:   Thank you, everyone. 

Kevin Griffis:   Thanks, everyone.  Please feel free to give us a call if you have follow-up questions.  Have a good day. 

Jane Lubchenco:   Kevin, let me mention one more thing.  Im sorry.  There is a fact sheet that we have prepared thats a one-pager that describes many of the protocols.  And a link to that fact sheet will be on the release that we will be sending to all reporters on this call.

So Id just draw your attention to that and thank you again.

Kevin Griffis: All right.  Thank you.

Operator:  Thank you.  That does conclude todays conference call.  You may now disconnect.

END