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 detect no 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."
Click here to read the next post in this series: How we stumbled across the fish sniffers