Gulf oil spill leaves future uncertain

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Anglers, charter boat captains wait for the fallout from the catastrophic oil rig explosion and spill

While BP Global tested a strategy for capturing oil from its Deepwater Horizon well and preventing it from spewing into the mile-deep water, Capt. Tom Becker was wondering if the damage already had been done.

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster is taking a toll on the environment and a host of industries, from commercial fishing to recreational marine.

"I am very concerned," says Becker, of Biloxi, Miss., as more than 5 million gallons of oil spread across a 500-mile swath of the Gulf of Mexico off Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. In his 25 years of fishing he hasn't seen a threat as potentially catastrophic to his livelihood as this one.
"I'll be 69 in July," says Becker, captain of The Skipper, a 40-foot charter fishing boat. "How many years can I sit around unemployed?" If Becker doesn't fish, he doesn't work.
At press time, authorities had closed all fishing off Louisiana from Point Au Fer Island, which is well east of the Mississippi Delta, to Pensacola, Fla. The closure included most of Louisiana's inshore waters but none of Mississippi, Alabama or Florida's. By mid-May, NOAA's offshore closures had reached 19 percent of the Gulf of Mexico's federal waters.
While there still was plenty of water to fish in, the charter boat industry is not getting calls, says Becker. "Or the calls we are getting are concerned about the possibility of canceling a trip," he says.
He had just lost a two-day charter for a party of 10 worth $9,600 to him. "That's a lot of money for hotels, a lot of money for me, and I'm not the only one," he says. The charter captain also was worried that the oil would devastate fisheries on which so many fishermen - commercial and recreational - depend. Speckled trout, Spanish mackerel, king mackerel and cobia all were spawning as the gooey crude oozed across the Gulf. The slick could wipe out or severely deplete a year class, drive out breeding stock, and kill shrimp, oysters and crabs, he says. It could happen - or maybe not.
The worst part was waiting ... and waiting ... and waiting to find out.
At Grand Isle, La., recreational anglers were adopting a wait-and-see attitude to coming down to the resort town to go fishing, even though the inshore waters around the island were reopened for fishing in mid-May.
"We have no boats in the marina," says Dodie Vegas, whose family has owned Grand Isle's 70-slip Bridge Side Marina since 1972. "It's the not knowing what's going to happen to us. The phones are non-stop. People have questions. I don't know how to answer them because two hours later it all may change."

Marine businesses along the Gulf Coast were waiting to see where the oil would wash ashore.

Where it's headed
Twenty-six days after the April 20 explosion killed 11 oil rig workers and ruptured the BP well, BP announced it had succeeded in inserting a mile-long tube into the leaking pipe. That tube was capturing about 20 percent of the estimated 5,000 barrels a day spewing from the well and redirecting it to the Discoverer Enterprise drill ship. BP officials say they planned to gradually increase the amount of oil captured from the well and then plug what remains of the leak, they hoped, by the third week of May. Meanwhile BP was drilling a relief well as a last resort to stanch the oil, but that could take 90 days to complete.
If that was the good news, the bad news was that oceanographers were forecasting that the Gulf loop current might scoop up part of the oil and whisk it south down to the Florida Keys and into the Gulf Stream, whose conveyor-belt current could carry it to Cape Hatteras, N.C., and beyond.
The loop current was moving north and "getting awfully close to the oil," says University of South Florida oceanographer Robert Weisberg, who has been tracking both (see www.ocgweb.marine.usf.edu). One computer model showed the loop current already sucking up some of the oil and carrying it away.
Exactly how much oil will ride the loop current and whether it will make landfall in other parts of the Southeast - or drop out over the Keys reefs - remains to be seen. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection, while stressing no immediate threat, says tar balls, oil sheens or tar mats are possible.
At the municipal marina in Panama City, Fla., dockmaster Bill Lloyd says he's been swamped with calls about what to do if the spill drifts east toward the Panhandle. At last report, winds were pushing it west, giving northwest Florida, Alabama and Mississippi a reprieve. Lloyd's advice to his customers was "hold tight," and if the spill threatens Panama City, move your boat or have it hauled.
If the oil surges their way, most marina operators planned to boom off the entrances to their harbors and make sure any boats that come through the spill stop for a thorough washdown before entering the marina.
The New York Times reported May 15 that scientists on a research vessel have found plumes of oil - possibly slurry-like mixtures of water and oil droplets - 2,000, 3,000, 4,000 feet down in the Gulf, one of them 10 miles long, 3 miles wide and 300 feet thick. The scientists are worried that bacteria eating the oil may be depleting oxygen, which is hard to replace at those depths and is essential for the survival of many organisms. NOAA, however, says it was too early to confirm that these deep-water anomalies were, in fact, Deepwater oil.

Oil and anglers
BP reportedly was spending $20 million a day to plug the leak and clean up the spill with detergents, skimmers and controlled burns. The joint information center for response to the spill (www.deepwaterhorizonresponse.com) reported 19,000 personnel engaged in shoreline and wildlife protection; 650 boats mobilized for cleanup and containment; 285,000 feet of containment boom and 900,000 feet of absorbent boom deployed; 6.3 million gallons of water mixed with oil recovered, and 600,000 gallons of detergent dispensed.
Despite the massive deployment, anglers especially were hardly optimistic about the outcome. NOAA reports that some 6 million anglers go on 45 million fishing trips a year on the Gulf to catch redfish, spotted sea trout, sheephead, red snapper and other species. "I'm 60 years old," says A.J. Collura, a New Orleans angler who fishes mostly for "specs" and redfish in his 18-foot center console. "I don't think I'll ever see [Gulf fishing] right again. It's sad."
His biggest concerns: loss of seagrass and breed stock. "I live to fish," says the marine parts manager. "I have ever since I was a kid. My mom would drive me to the boat launch before I was old enough to drive."
Oil and anglers have a kind of symbiotic relationship in the Gulf, says Todd Knaak, president of Cypress Cove Boating Center and Marina, which has a showroom in Slidell near Lake Pontchartrain and a marina/resort in Venice on the Mississippi Delta. The oil and gas platforms - NOAA says there are 4,000 of them on the Gulf - "are good attractors for fish," he says. Anglers swarm around them, with oil company permission. He notes, too, that the oil industry is an economic dynamo in southern Louisiana. Many of Knaak's new-boat customers are well-paid rig roustabouts or oil-related business owners. But if there are no fish, there's not much demand for boats in these parts.
"This has the potential to be catastrophic," Knaak says. "I think everyone's scared and just crossing their fingers."

Commercial and sport fisheries are being impacted.
Oil containment boom is deployed by commercial vessels off Venice, La.

This article originally appeared in the July 2010 issue.