After being loaded onto the cart, the fish are brought to a lab inside the NOAA building, where they are left to thaw overnight before being inspected. The lab is cool and crowded with refrigerators and processing equipment. Not surprisingly, it smells like fish.
While the recent arrivals begin to defrost, we are led to a black counter on the other side of the lab where two workers from NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center are preparing a cobia, also known as lemon fish or ling fish, that was caught a few days ago for inspection.
Wearing latex gloves, they carefully remove a filet from one side and place it into a Pyrex bowl for the sensory team. Then they remove a filet that is carefully wrapped and then prepared for shipment to the Seattle lab for chemical analysis.
By the time it gets there, the results from the sensory test will be known. If it passed the sniff test, it will undergo chemical testing; if not, it doesn't.
In case you were wondering, there are between 60 and 70 people in the U.S. trained as expert seafood sensory assessors.
They work for NOAA or the federal Food and Drug Administration and are usually charged with inspecting seafood shipments for signs of decomposition.
A person becomes an expert through a combination of natural ability, training and practice, said Steven Wilson, chief quality officer for NOAA's Seafood Inspection Program. The best testers can detect taint in concentrations as low as 1 part per million, he said.
"The issues that come up are just, literally, how sensitive their noses can be," he said. "Also, how repeatable their results are."
About 16 of those experts specialize in petroleum taint, said Wilson, with more experts being trained in this specialty every day. By the end of the summer, Wilson hopes to have at least 24 assessors "harmonized," a process that trains testers to detect oil and dispersants specific to the Deepwater Horizon spill.
Cheryl Lassitter, left, Lisa Natanson, center, and Stephen Bell unload samples of seafood at the dock at the NOAA National Seafood Inspection Lab. Samples are being tested to determine if fish from the Gulf of Mexico have been contaminated after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
We've just been led into a warehouse that opens onto the dock, where the 180-foot NOAA research vessel Delaware II is waiting.
First NOAA expert John Stein shows us a large map decorated with little black crosses that represent the spots where NOAA's fleet has taken seafood samples since April 28 – ranging all the way from the tip of Texas to the end of the Florida panhandle. In some cases, they have done sampling to gather baseline data; in others, missions were aimed at determining whether specific areas could be reopened to fishing.
Today the boat has brought in pelagic – or deep sea – fish are on the sniffing menu, specifically blackfin tuna, yellowfin tuna and mahi mahi.
NOAA is doing more testing of these species because little is known about what is happening to fish that live far offshore and travel long distances, and because these fish represent a lot of money for sport and commercial fishing operations.
"Our focus is on commercially important species," said Calvin Walker, a NOAA toxicologist.
The crew of the Delaware II unloaded about 10 frozen fish, each about 4 feet long and wrapped in black plastic and duct taped to prevent contamination. They are piled on a cart on the dock, where photographers and film crews crowd around to shoot what looks like a small pile of black cordwood.
Now we're heading back into the building for a demonstration of the testing procedures.
While we're waiting for the sniffing to begin, let's address a question that several posters already have brought up:
Why use humans rather than chemical tests?
Using human assessors rather than chemical tests for first screening is a matter of efficiency and practicality, according to Steven Wilson, chief quality officer for NOAA's inspection program. Seafood that has a noticeably oily smell or taste is considered unfit for human consumption and can't be sold.
"If you actually smell oil in there, even though the chemical may be low and safe to eat, it won't be marketable," he said. "There are times when even it fails sensory, it passes chemical."
And suspect samples are chemically tested for PAHs – polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, the primary components of oil and tar. But that process is expensive and time-consuming. It can cost between $400 and $800 and take four days to test a batch of fish. Better to test only the fish that seem, well, fishy, Wilson said.
Today's briefing about the fish-testing program will take place at a tidy new NOAA building with ocean-colored accents in low-lying Pascagoula. After crossing several bridges arcing over the marsh, we were greeted by Monica Allen, deputy director of NOAA fisheries communications, who was friendly and crisp in her light blue NOAA shirt.
The new testers will have to focus, given the earthy smells being emitted by an adjacent waste treatment plant.
On hand for the briefing are representatives of six or seven media organizations, including the New York Times, Washington Post, AP Television and the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
We're now marching down to the dock for an initial look at an incoming seafood sample. More shortly.
Msnbc.com was looking into seafood safety regulations and the protocols for reopening Gulf fishing areas when we came across a little-known but fascinating aspect of the seafood safety enforcement: the panel of secret testers.
NOAA officials already had noted they planned to use a panel of 10 expert assessors to decide when to open closed fisheries. But when we asked for the names of those experts, NOAA and the FDA balked at giving us a list, saying they feared for the accuracy and the safety of the testers if they were identified.
Then we learned that there's an entire industry of seafood sniffers -- and a place that trains them. The University of Florida operates a Professional Seafood Sensory School, which includes a targeted Shrimp School, that has trained some 500 students in the past 12 years, according to Victor Garrido, who helps coordinate the program.
Students usually come from government, industry or from private labs that are now being required to bulk up their testers' certification. Demand for sniffers could spike in the wake of the Gulf oil spill, Garrdio said.
We're live blogging about a NOAA briefing today in Pascagoula, Miss., where we'll get a chance to watch some 40 new sniffing recruits show off their talents.
An inspector from NOAA's Seafood Inspection Program conducts sensory analysis - a smell test - of a sample of fish.
When oil from BP's Deepwater Horizon well finally stops gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, the decision about whether to reopen at least 81,000 square miles of waters to commercial fishing will rest with the trained noses and palates of a secret panel of nearly two dozen seafood sniffers.
They're the deciders, a group of experts -- highly skilled and exquisitely practiced in detecting unusual odors and tastes, including those of petroleum – that will largely determine the fate of the region's $659 million-a-year fishing industry.
Working for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, they will be charged with sniffing raw and cooked samples of 10 kinds of fish and shellfish, tasting a bit of each – and then deciding, yea or nay, whether an area can reopen.
"This is a major determination of the acceptability of the seafood coming out of the Gulf," said Steven Wilson, chief quality officer for NOAA's Seafood Inspection Program. "This is a major step."
Today you'll learn more about the program as msnbc.com live blogs a briefing at the NOAA lab in Pascagoula, Miss. Msnbc.com reporter Kari Huus will be on the scene, writing about a class of aspiring testers as they check a fresh load of seafood from the Gulf, and msnbc.com health reporter JoNel Aleccia will be filling in the facts and sharing interesting details about the testing program from our offices in Redmond, Wash.
When the oil-spewing Deepwater Horizon well is finally plugged or capped, which BP now hopes to accomplish by late this month, Wilson anticipates that he'll be running three "sensory crews" that will test up to 100 samples of seafood a day. For a specific geographical fishery to pass the first hurdle, five of seven testers on a panel must detectno trace of petroleum odor or flavor. If they detect any taint, that fishery remains closed. If the seafood passes, it is sent to a lab for chemical confirmation.
The new recruits are among some 40 state workers from the five Gulf Coast states that NOAA is teaching to be front-line testers. They will sniff fish on docks and in labs, determining whether the samples warrant further testing. If they clear the seafood, it will be sent to the secret experts, who are the final human arbiters.
That job is so politically charged that NOAA officials won't release the panelists' names. Officials say that the workers, including some who live in the Gulf Coast communities devastated by the spill, could face enormous pressure and even danger over their decisions about reopening the fishing areas.
"There are angry fishermen who are like, 'It's clean, let me in there,'" said Christine Patrick, a NOAA spokeswoman. "They're concerned not only for their objectivity, but for their safety."
The testers might have reason to be worried, said Capt. J.W. Berry, who runs fishing trips as a member of the Louisiana Charter Boat Association.
"If they don't open it back up, I can see them getting scrutinized," said Berry, 29, who also works as a New Orleans firefighter. "I can see them getting harassed and picked on. Not me, but I can see certain types of people doing it."
In BP Offshore Oil Strike, the first player to earn $120,000,000 wins.
LONDON -- An obscure BP-themed board game in which players aim to avoid rig disasters has become an unexpected hit at a British toy museum.
BP Offshore Oil Strike was released in the early 1970s and allows up to four players to explore for oil, build platforms and construct pipelines. The first player to earn $120,000,000 wins.
Its "hazard cards" include "Blow-out! Rig damaged. Oil slick clean-up costs. Pay $1million."
BP announced Monday that it has spent $3.12 billion dealing with the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The game was recently donated to the House on the Hill Toy Museum in Stansted, Essex.
"The parallels between the game and the current crisis... are so spooky," museum owner Alan Goldsmith told Britain's Metro newspaper. "The picture on the front of the box is so reminiscent to the disaster with the stormy seas, the oil rig and an overall sense of doom.
"I was just knocked over by how relevant this game is, despite being made some 35 years ago, to BP’s troubles today."
Goldsmith said the game is worth about £75 ($115).
Rosenfield was released after officials looked through the pictures he had taken and took down his date of birth, Social Security number and other personal information, the photographer said. The information was turned over to the BP security guard who said this was standard procedure, ProPublica quoted Rosenfield as saying.
Rosenfield, a Texas-based freelance photographer, said he was followed by a BP employee after taking a picture on a public road near the refinery, and then cornered by two police cars at a gas station. The officials told Rosenfield they had the right to look at the pictures taken near the refinery and if he did not comply he would be "taken in," the photographer said according to ProPublica.
BP gave ProPublica the following statement after the incident:
"BP Security followed the industry practice that is required by federal law. The photographer was released with his photographs after those photos were viewed by a representative of the Joint Terrorism Task Force who determined that the photographer's actions did not pose a threat to public safety."
In response to BP, ProPublica's editor-in-chief Paul Steiger said:
"We certainly appreciate the need to secure the nation's refineries. But we're deeply troubled by BP's conduct here, especially when they knew we were working on deadline on critical stories about this very facility. And we see no reason why, if law enforcement needed to review the unpublished photographs, that should have included sharing them with a representative of a private company."
When msnbc.com contacted BP, spokeswoman Sheila Williams said there was nothing the firm wanted to add to its earlier comment.
Some politicians, like Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, R-Texas, have complained that the Jones Act, a 1920 maritime law that promotes U.S. shipping interests, is prohibiting foreign flagged vessels from entering the Gulf of Mexico to help in the cleanup effort.
"Over 20 countries have offered response vessels and expertise to assist in the cleanup of the Gulf, but because of the 1920 Merchant Marine Act, known as the Jones Act, foreign vessels are prohibited from operating within three miles of the U.S. coastline except after going through an extended process for waivers," Hutchinson said at a congressional hearing Wednesday.
However U.S Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, commander of the federal spill response, says that the Jones Act has not impeded foreign flagged ships from helping out. During a briefing Wednesday, Allen said that the Jones Act had not created "inhibitions or constraints" on the cleanup.
During an interview with msnbc.com Tuesday, Coast Guard spokesman Capt. Ron Lebrec noted that while Allen doesn’t believe vessels need a waiver from the Jones Act to help with the spill, regardless, the Coast Guard has established a expedited process if it is determined that waivers are required.
"The Jones Act hasn’t impacted any vessels coming to this response," he said. "And we have taken proactive steps to ensure it does not become an issue."
It’s the first time that Mississippi has had a major landfall of oil on any of its beaches. Until now, the state had dodged the bullet that has hit Alabama and Florida.
We are heading there now to talk to city managers and residents who, from what we understand at the outset, are quite angry. One city official in Biloxi told me that BP and the unified command had two months to anticipate the arrival of oil in Mississippi and yet they seem to have been unprepared.
He claims that there were no skimmer boats there and very little boom put out – so now there is oil on Mississippi beaches.
Oil hitting this region’s beaches is becoming a recurrent problem that is casting a dark shadow over a usually happy time of year here: summer vacation.
On Sunday, just west of Gulf Shores, Ala., we met Jamie and Jennifer Bible and their family. They had come from Tuscaloosa, to visit their favorite vacation spot. They came there expecting to sit by the water, Jennifer’s favorite pastime, only to find a big dark pool of oil sitting in their favorite spot.
So now they are going to be spending their vacation at the pool and they are not going to let their kids near the water. And Jennifer will not be able to enjoy the ocean because not only is there oil coming in on the beach, but there is oil coming in with the surf. We could see it. There were skimmer boats offshore trying to stop the oil from coming in, but so much was getting past them that it was fouling the shore.
Every day now, oil seems to hit a beach somewhere in either Florida, Alabama or now Mississippi – but it’s hard to predict where the oil will hit next. It’s all the function of wind and current and tide.
The unpredictability is giving city managers fits because they can’t get ahead of the oil. As soon as they clean it up, more comes in, maybe in a different part of the beach then the area they just were working on. It is extremely frustrating for the workers who are out working in the high humidity during the day trying to get ahead of the oil. It is an uphill battle.
Once the oil hits the beach, it’s a big problem on many different levels.
First of all, economically, oil hitting the beach is a death knell for the tourist trade. Once tourists see that oil is on the beaches, they are very reluctant to go there. Condo managers, rental managers, hotel owners, restaurant owners all say that they are being hurt very badly by oil on their beaches.
Physically, it’s tough to get rid of, too. If they don’t get to it right away, new sand brought in by the tide will pile up on top of the oil and then they have to dig below the sand to get to it. If they don’t do that, the oil can sit there, fester and bubble up over time. So it’s a real problem. It leads to staining, it fouls the beach, tourists don’t like it, residents don’t like it and everybody feels it’s inevitable that a lot more will keep coming ashore.
And then there is the impact on wildlife. Everyday there are reports of birds being fouled. We see dolphins swimming out there in the water right near the oil patches. We see large schools of fish very close to shore, in amongst the oil.
So the worry here, in this area famous for its with crystal clear water, pristine beaches and abundant wildlife is that all of that is going to be impacted, in addition to the economic impact.
For tourists who are returning to places they have loved for years and suddenly see oil on their beaches – it’s a real shock. People have told us that they have cried.
Not only is their vacation ruined, but their favorite place is ruined. They feel sorry for the animals and they feel sorry for the people who live here.
It’s a real shock that unfortunately is being suffered by more and more tourists when they get here and see oil on the beaches.
A new containment cap that BP plans to place over the leaking oil well in the Gulf of Mexico has the potential to halt the flow of crude oil in mid-July, a BP executive said Monday.
In a technical briefing for reporters, BP Senior Vice President Kent Wells said that replacement of the oil containment cap with a bigger cap, which could happen as soon as two weeks, could stop the oil leak under the right circumstances.
“A lot depends on the pressure response we see,” he said. “… If the capability is there to stop the flow, we’ll do that.”
If successful, the new capping operation would cut several weeks off BP’s previous estimate of when it would be able to shut off the leak by drilling a relief well.
West said that the relief well operation is continuing to make good progress and has come within 20 feet of the Macando well that has been spewing oil into the Gulf since April 20. From here, engineers plan to drill another 900 feet or so vertically, paralleling the runaway well and conducting “ranging” tests to ensure they are locked onto the target.
“By running parallel … we are going to know exactly where that well is,” he said. “… Having the ability to do that really increases the probability of success.”
Despite the progress, West declined to move up the timetable for completion of the relief well, which is still expected in early August.