The massive oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico is a long way from Canada but scientists and seafood groups are watching closely in case currents start moving the oil northward along the United States east coast.
“We know where the currents are going, but we don’t know what the oil will do in it,” says Prof. Alvaro Montenegro of St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S.
Between 80 million and 174 million litres of oil has gushed into Gulf waters since an oil well leased by BP exploded on April 20 about 80 kilometres from the Louisiana coast.
Montenegro said there’s a chance that a strong current that loops through the area could carry the oil into the Gulf Stream and along the U.S. east coast, but he doubts any would reach Canada.
“It’s not going to go much further north than southern Virginia or North Carolina,” he said.
Instead, he said, any oil travelling that far north would then turn east with the current and into the mid-Atlantic.
Still, seafood companies are watching closely to see if the affects of the spill are felt farther north. Already more than 230,000 square kilometres of the Gulf have been declared a no-fishing zone.
“The guys are definitely scared of what might happen, but right now there’s plenty of supply,” said David Samuels, owner of the Blue Ribbon Fish Company, a fish wholesaler in New York.
He said the price for warm-water shrimp has already risen because of concerns that shrimping in the Gulf will have to stop. But Samuels said he didn’t expect his business would see many other affects on supply.
“We don’t use a lot of Gulf of Mexico oysters,” he said. “We do use a lot of oysters from Nova Scotia and P.E.I., so there won’t be a large void here.”
Samuels said he is hearing that his clients — restaurants and retail stores — are getting a lot of questions from the public about fish safety.
“The Canadian and United States governments are very careful with what comes out of the water,” he said. “They have to convince their customers that if they’re serving it, it’s safe to be served.”
John Sackton, who operates a news service on the industry on the website Seafood.com, said an erosion of public confidence is to be expected when people see pictures on television every night of oil-covered sea birds and oil washing ashore.
“They associate that with the ocean where their seafood comes from,” he said from his home in Lexington, Mass.
“We’re very concerned that if this keeps going over the summer it could leave a portion of people to back off on their seafood consumption.”
But Derek Butler of the Association of Seafood Producers in St. John’s, N.L., said he thinks most people are aware their seafood comes from areas other than the Gulf of Mexico.
“I think very few people would sit down at the end of the day in a seafood restaurant — even in the U.S. — and go wait now, I’m not sure about seafood because of that spill in the Gulf,” he said.
Despite the assurances, one biologist is warning that some species of fish caught off Atlantic Canada and the United States could be affected in years to come.
Mark Butler, policy director at Nova Scotia’s Ecology Action Centre, said the spill could have an impact on future generations of migratory fish like the bluefin tuna that spawn in the Gulf of Mexico.
“Any species that spawns, overwinters in the Gulf of Mexico and then comes north in the summer could be affected by the oil spill,” he said.
He said while most of the migratory fish would have left the Gulf by the time of the spill, their offspring are still there.
“You’ve got juveniles or larvae drifting in the water column as plankton and if they come into contact with oil or these dispersants it could be lethal,” he said.
But Butler said the real impact won’t be known for years to come when studies show the number of adult tuna. He said not enough is known about what the oil will do, and the many variables involved with the currents, duration of the spill and the clean-up.
“You can’t make any predictions about what might happen,” he said.