Health hazards related to eating fish contaminated from the 5,000 barrels of oil spewing through the Gulf floor every day from the Deepwater Horizon site are likely being substantially overblown, according to a retired marine biology professor.

Jerald Horst, who retired two years ago from the LSU AgCenter after a 30-year career, said oil-tainted seafood presents almost no health risk to consumers.

"We have a general climate of overreaction and fear in the state right now," Horst said.

Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Secretary Robert Barham closed recreational fishing in most Louisiana coastal areas east of the Mississippi River - including the Chanedleur Islands and the Biloxi Marsh frequented by Magnolia State anglers - on April 30 in response to the spill.

"I signed this emergency closure today as a proactive effort to prevent any oil-tainted fish, shrimp or crab from being caught and thus consumed," Barham said at the time.

But Horst said any tainted seafood would be immediately identifiable by the consumer.

"It takes only a tiny amount of polyaromatic hydrocarbon for a fish to become entirely inedible," he said. "The risk is not in people getting ill, but in seafood just really tasting bad.

"From my years of working in the seafood industry, it's clear to me that the risk is not a health risk but a quality risk."

That sentiment was echoed by Ed Overton, professor emeritus of LSU's Department of Environmental Sciences.

"It's not a toxicity issue for people, per se. The seafood just doesn't taste good," Overton said. "It's a consumption-quality issue."

Horst pointed back to the 1960s and '70s when surf anglers at Grand Isle, Elmer's Isle and Holly Beach used to encounter oil on every trip. 

"Ask anyone who fished back then, and they'll tell you that after they walked back to their vehicle, they'd wash their feet with a gasoline-soaked rag to remove the oil," he said. "Otherwise, they'd have oil-and-sand-crusted footprints all over the vehicle.

"The oil industry used to be very, very messy."

That coincided with the halcyon days of Louisiana coastal fishing.

"We measured success back then by boxes of fish," Horst said. "Now don't get me wrong: I'm not saying the oil is good for the habitat. I'm just saying that people need to put things in perspective."

Horst said crude oil is naturally occurring, and nature has ways of dealing with it.

"It's unrefined; it's produced from the decay of sealife," he said. "There are bacteria that eat this stuff."

A far greater risk comes from the dispersants that, until recently, British Petroleum was using to break up the oil, Horst said.

"I do have some concerns if we just put the oil out of sight, out of mind," he said.

Horst explained that much of the lower depths of the Gulf are anaerobic, except for the inch closest to the seafloor. It is along this oxygenated seabed that the base of the food chain originates.

If it is covered with globulous oil, many species, including brown shrimp, will die.

"Brown shrimp are voracious predators," Horst said. "They go along the bottom gorging themselves on acorn worms."

Horst cautioned managers to consider the long-term implications of any fisheries closures.

"If the reaction goes too far, it can very seriously add to the climate of enormous fear that can collapse the businesses that depend on the fishing industry," he said. "When you dry up the flow of people coming to fish, I don't know if that can be replaced."

Editor's Note: Armchair Anglers host Bo Crawford contributed to this article.