Richard Lochhead, the environment secretary, announced that initial tests on more than 200 fish samples, taken “close” to the stricken Total platform, had found no evidence of being tainted by hydrocarbons.
He said the taste test results were “very reassuring”, but said that detailed chemical analysis of the fish, water and sediment samples recovered by a research vessel at the weekend had still to be completed.
The fish samples, together with water and sediment samples, were taken from the sea from the edge of the two-mile exclusion zone around the abandoned Elgin installation by the marine survey vessel Alba na Mara, which docked in Fraserburgh on Sunday night.
Scientists from the government’s marine laboratory in Aberdeen, who are members of a special panel of “sensory” taste testers – chosen and trained for their ability to recognise hydrocarbon taint in fish – were the first to study samples of seven species of both pelagic and white fish species, caught by trawl near the stricken platform.
The Scottish Government confirmed the fish were cooked in a microwave before being sampled. The taste team were also given fresh drinking water and plain savoury biscuits.
Smell tests were carried out with “an initial deep inhalation, followed by one or two shallower sniffs”.
Mr Lochhead said: “It’s reassuring that sensory testing of the fish samples gathered by the Alba na Mara have found they are untainted by hydrocarbons.
“Full chemical analysis work – including water and sediment samples – is ongoing and will provide further clarification on any impact. Marine Scotland Science have the necessary knowledge, skills and experience to carry out this work effectively, including the UK’s only specially trained sensory panel.
“We will continue our monitoring activities for the duration of this incident, so we can assess any impact on the marine environment and respond as needed.”
But one of Scotland’s leading environmental charities stressed the need for continued caution about the impact of the uncontrolled gas leak on the marine environment. The gas has now been spewing from the installation since 25 March.
Stan Blackley, chief executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland, said: “While Total and the Scottish Government claim that the environmental impact of the gas leak from the Elgin Platform has been minimal so far, proper chemical testing of environmental samples taken near the platform is still ongoing, so it is premature to underplay the potential damage and problems that may have been caused.
“The real effects of the gas leak may be cumulative and long-term and will not known for some time.”
He added: “Just because a panel of ‘fish tasters’ couldn’t taste any hydrocarbons in some fish caught near the Elgin platform doesn’t necessarily mean that hidden and longer-term environmental damage is not being caused to the waters, seabed and wildlife in the area.”
A spokesman for the French oil giant declined to comment on the taste test results.