NEW ORLEANS (CN) – The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration says fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico have reported catching fish with lesions on their bodies, but NOAA says nothing conclusive has been confirmed.
“Some fishermen have reported that certain numbers of their catch have certain lesions in their bodies,” Dr. Bonnie Ponwith, director of NOAA Fisheries Southeast Fisheries Science Center, said in a telephone interview late last week.
“We’ve been keeping an eye on the level of prevalence of this,” Ponwith said.
Ponwith confirmed that scientists from Louisiana State University’s Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences determined that lesions found on red snapper taken within 20 miles of Orange Beach, Ala. were found to be from two bacteria common in the Gulf of Mexico, Vibrio vulnificus and Photobacterium damselae.
“We have not confirmed the bacteria,” Ponwith said. “We haven’t done any research ourselves, but we certainly take this very seriously.”
Ponwith said an LSU professor has been conducting his own research on fish taken from the waters off the coast of Alabama that show signs of fin rot, lesions and other abnormalities.
But Ponwith added that government scientists so far have not found any form of the sicknesses being reported.
“For us, we’ve done our own monitoring since we’ve been keeping track, and we’ve had zero” sick fish. Ponwith said.
Ponwith said another science cruise beginning this week will go along the coast of Alabama looking for sick fish. The cruise will operate in conjunction with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and will focus on hot spots, where abnormalities have been reported.
Ponwith said the fish that have been found to be sick with the bacteria were taken from such a “place of interest.”
Last week the Pensacola News Journal quoted LSU Professor Jim Cowan Jr., who is studying the sick fish off the coast of Alabama.
Cowan told the News Journal that while there is no hard data to connect the sick fish to last summer’s massive oil spill, fish are showing up sick in the areas of the Gulf that were hardest hit by oil.
Cowan told the newspaper that Photobacterium damselae could lead to a massive fish loss and under certain circumstances can pose health problems for humans.
Cowan did not return calls from Courthouse News.
“If the bacteria was indeed this type, it would be possible for the person handling it to contract it through a cut,” Ponwith said.
But she thought human contact with the bacteria from an infected fish was highly unlikely.
“If you were a commercial fisherman, would you sell a fish with a lesion?” she asked. “Commercial fishermen I know are very proud of their catch.”
She added, “A fish house would not accept such a fish.”
Ponwith said that if a sick fish did make it to a kitchen by mistake, heat from cooking the fish would certainly kill any bacteria.
As to whether the abnormalities can be tied to oil, Ponwith was unsure.
“That’s a difficult question to answer, because we haven’t sampled the fish yet. NOAA is evaluating a broad number of possible impacts of the oil spill,” she said.
“When we hear reports, we take them seriously. We are as concerned about the health of the Gulf as the people living there,” Ponwith said.
Red snapper season in the Gulf of Mexico opens Wednesday, June 1.