The disastrous oil spill from the tanker Exxon Valdez will not affect the quality and wholesomeness of Alaskan seafood this season, according to a trade group representing the state's fishermen and wholesalers.
The announcement, by the Alaskan Seafood Marketing Institute, is aimed at maintaining consumer confidence in an industry whose 1988 catch totaled 5.5 billion pounds. The harvest's dockside value, or the amount paid fishermen, was valued at $1.7 billion last year.
Several precautions are being taken this year to ensure the safety of the catch, such as intensified monitoring for contamination in both the water and fishery products, the Juneau-based group announced recently.
Concerns center on the Prince William Sound, the area in which the spill occurred on March 24. Since the tanker ran aground, these waters have been closed to fishermen. The action primarily affected the local herring and salmon catch. Of lesser economic value were harvests of halibut, black cod and shellfish.
However, the area affected by the spill is not a major factor in the state's seafood industry. In fact, Prince William Sound represents only one of 15 approved fishing grounds in Alaska. Further, not even all of the sound has been closed.
"The sound is a very large place and portions of it are just fine," said Merry Tuten, the institute's executive director.
The industry's reassurances come just days before the fishing season begins in earnest on May 15 when boats are allowed to catch halibut during a closely controlled 24-hour period. The Copper River salmon season will also begin on that same day.
Prior to any commercial fishing though, state-supervised tests of water and fish quality will be conducted. The surveys will be monitored by the federal government.
According to Tuten, the tests for halibut have already been completed. Preliminary indications are that oil is not now a problem in the Gulf of Alaska--where much of the fish is caught--nor even in some parts of the sound.
"What they determined is that the (traditional fishing) area is clear and free of any oil," said Kevin O'Sullivan, the institute's quality assurance coordinator. "The scientific tests for any potential oil in the liver or gall blatter of the fish (were negative)."
The testing is being done by the Alaskan Department of Environmental Conservation and the Department of Fish and Game. The agencies are using, among other methods, organoleptic testing, which involves a visual inspection of the fish.
"Oil is something visual and aromatic. You can easily spot the contamination and the state won't allow it," said O'Sullivan. "If there is any oil at all in the fish then it is contaminated. . . . And any catch containing it would be condemned, confiscated and destroyed."
Alaskan seafood currently on the market was harvested well before the spill and poses no problems to consumers, institute officials said. They added that there is little to fear from Alaskan salmon, halibut, crab and shrimp that will be arriving in stores in the weeks to come.
"We feel completely confident with the public's consumption of Alaskan seafood," said O'Sullivan. "We place a great deal of confidence in the (surveillance) program, and consumers would be foolish to pass up the unique eating opportunity of Alaskan seafood."
Whether the group's endorsement is enough to restore consumers confidence in the state's seafood is unknown. Even the institute acknowledges that it's too soon to determine the spill's effect on prices and supplies this year.
"No, the (Exxon Valdez) did not help us," said O'Sullivan. "But Alaskans are used to problems and are used to dealing with them. And we will deal with this one."