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Oil Spill Imperils Gulf Coast Fishing Industry
Date:2010/5/7      View:1598
 

(Adds early shrimp season opening starting in first paragraph.)

By Aaron Kuriloff and Jim Polson

April 29 (Bloomberg) -- Shrimp boats headed to fishing grounds east of the Mississippi River today after Louisiana opened an early season to bring in as much harvest as possible before oil from the Gulf of Mexico spill washes ashore.

Mike Voisin, who owns Houma-based Motivatit Seafood, said the state¡¯s move will help offset potential losses if oil forces the closure of fishing grounds.

¡°Maybe before it hits inshore there can be a week or two of harvest and we¡¯ll get something out,¡± he said in a telephone interview.

Billions of dollars generated by outdoor sports, commercial fishing and beach tourism along the Gulf of Mexico coast are at risk if crude oil leaking from a damaged well off the coast of Louisiana washes aground. BP Plc, which owns the well, says it is leaking five times faster than previously thought, spewing 5,000 barrels of oil a day into the Gulf.

The spill may threaten wildlife and seafood production in a state known as ¡°Sportsman¡¯s Paradise,¡± as well as in Mississippi, Alabama, Florida or Texas, said Robert Shipp, chairman of the Marine Sciences Department at the University of South Alabama.

¡°If this thing really gets to the coast, to those sugar- white beaches from Gulf Shores, Alabama, to Panama City, Florida, that would be just a horrible disaster,¡± Shipp said in an interview.

Coming Ashore

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration expects winds to begin pushing oil ashore in Louisiana as soon as tomorrow evening near the mouth of the Mississippi River. St. Bernard Parish, east of New Orleans, hosted a meeting this morning to gather information from local fishers identifying the areas most sensitive to the spill. The parish government is also recruiting fishers to help with any local efforts to protect the coast.

Shrimpers filed suit against BP, saying contamination from the spill has caused and will continue to cause loss of revenue. The suit is seeking class-action, or group status to represent all residents who live in or derive income from the coastal areas of Louisiana and would suffer losses.

The magnitude of the problem for fish and wildlife depends on how long the well continues to leak oil and where and when it touches land, said Karen Foote, marine fisheries division administrator for the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Department.

Shrimp Crop

Foote said marshes may suffer long-term damage from the oil spill. The Louisiana coast includes 3 million acres of wetlands that serve as a nursery for game fish such as speckled trout and red drum and are currently nurturing the brown shrimp crop to be harvested by the state¡¯s fishing fleet.

Louisiana is the largest seafood producer in the lower 48 states, with annual retail sales of about $1.8 billion, according to state data. Recreational fishing generates about $1 billion in retail sales a year, according to the state.

¡°Our marshes are nurseries and if those marshes are impacted, those juveniles that are dependent on feeding in those marshes will be affected too,¡± Foote said in an interview.

Wildlife Habitat

Those species include shrimp, oysters, crab, menhaden and game fish that have made Louisiana a destination for seafood lovers, commercial harvesters and anglers, said Mark Schexnayder, regional coastal adviser for Louisiana State University¡¯s Agricultural Center. The marshes also are home to 5 million migratory birds, along with alligators, turtles and other species.

Louisiana¡¯s marshy coastline extends 15,000 miles (24,135 kilometers), according to its Department of Natural Resources. BP is trying to protect areas most sensitive to oiling, from the delta to Mobile Bay, Alabama, Doug Suttles, chief operating officer for exploration and production, said yesterday at a press conference.

Voisin said significant quantities of oil reaching land might force closures of oyster beds in some areas or hurt the shrimp harvest, which generates about $962 million in annual retail sales, according to the state.

The well began leaking oil after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, owned by Geneva-based Transocean Ltd., exploded and sank last week, killing 11 of the 126-member crew.

Louis Skrmetta, 54, captain of a ferry boat that carries tourists to Ship Island off the coast of Mississippi, fears a disaster. ¡°This will be worse than Hurricane Katrina,¡± he said. ¡°Our business will be ruined.¡±

Dwindling Anglers

Damon McKnight, a fishing guide who operates three 30-foot (9.1-meter) boats in Venice, Louisiana, near the mouth of the Mississippi River, said bookings are already down at his Super Strike Charters LLC. Since the spill, fewer anglers want to travel from Venice at the Mississippi River¡¯s mouth to the Gulf of Mexico in pursuit of marlin or tuna.

Saltwater sport fishing generates about $757 million in annual economic impact in Louisiana, while sustaining more than 7,700 jobs, according to the state.

People already think the area is covered in oil, McKnight, who sits on the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, said in an interview. ¡°Potential customers just aren¡¯t going to call right this minute when they see what¡¯s going on.¡±

 

 
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