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Oil Spill Poses Major Threat to Seafood Industry, Environment

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Special to the NNPA from the Louisiana Weekly –

(NNPA) - As oil from a massive spill caused by an oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico continued to pour into Louisiana's ecologically rich wetlands, elected officials and experts wondered about the long-term ecological and economic effects the accident will have on the state and its inhabitants. Those concerns were not eased as storms threatened to frustrate desperate protection efforts. Responding to a crisis that is threatening to spiral out of control, the Obama administration barred any new offshore oil projects until the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster that caused the spill is explained.

To underscore the severity of the spill, some have already compared it to the destruction of Hurricane Katrina and the colossal Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Gulf Coast environmental groups working in the areas at greatest risk from British Petroleum's catastrophic offshore drilling disaster, joined by Greenpeace USA, urged President Obama to accept their invitation, issued Thursday, to view the crisis with them.

"This is one of the worst environmental accidents in U.S. history," said Anne Rolfes with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. "We need the President's attention."

Congressman Anh "Joseph" Cao has called on his colleagues in Congress and the Obama administration to direct every available resource to contain the huge oil slick now beginning to wash ashore along the Louisiana coast. The Congressman flew over the slick on a U.S. Coast Guard airplane with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. The absence of an effective response would result in "the worst environmental disaster in Louisiana history, and possibly the history of the nation.

"BP and the administration must understand what's at stake for our wetlands, our commercial fishing industry and our economy," he added. "There is no overestimating the devastation this spill could have if it is allowed to penetrate our already-fragile wetlands, starving oxygen from aquatic life and killing more coast. The potential consequences are truly scary.

"Five years ago, the federal government failed us during Hurricane Katrina. I will not stand by and let the government fail us again."

At least one official warned against gloomy forecasts of the oil spill's long-term implications for the Gulf Coast.

"You are getting ahead of yourself a little when you try to speculate and say this is catastrophic. It is premature to say this is catastrophic," Coast Guard Admiral Mary Landry told the Christian Science Monitor Wednesday. "I will say this is very serious."

Crews in boats were patrolling coastal marshes early Friday looking for areas where the oil has flowed in, the Coast Guard said.

The National Weather Service predicted winds, high tides and waves through May 2 that could push oil deep into the already fragile inlets, ponds and lakes along the coast southeast Louisiana. Waves reaching six to seven feet were pushing tides several feet above normal toward Louisiana's coast, compounded by the continued threat of thunderstorms over the weekend.

Crews were unable to skim oil from the surface or burn it off for the next couple of days because of the weather, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Sally Brice-O'Hara said on ABC's "Good Morning America."

Waves may also wash over booms strung out just off shorelines to stop the oil, said Tom McKenzie, a spokesman for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is hoping booms will keep oil off the Chandeleur Islands, part of a national wildlife refuge.

"The challenge is, are they going to hold up in any kind of serious weather," McKenzie told The Associated Press. "And if there's oil, will the oil overcome the barriers even though they're ... executed well?"

A top adviser to President Barack Obama has said that no new oil drilling would be allowed until authorities learn what caused the explosion of the rig Deepwater Horizon. David Axelrod told ABC's "Good Morning America" that "no additional drilling has been authorized and none will until we find out what has happened here." Obama recently lifted a drilling moratorium for many offshore areas, including the Atlantic and Gulf areas.

Already grappling with imports of shrimp and other seafood - 80 percent of the seafood Americans eat is imported - the Gulf of Mexico seafood industry is determined to do everything it can to avoid public concern about the safety of U.S.-caught seafood.

Thus far, the seafood is safe since gulf oysters are never exposed to surface waters. That may change, however, should the oil begin to sink. Gulf shrimp, redfish and other species could avoid contamination by simply swimming away from the hardest-hit areas.

However, experts say that the spill could pose a significant danger to the industry if it damages fragile nursery grounds or seeps down into oyster beds.

"If you talk about the sky falling too early, then people stop buying Louisiana oysters, blue crabs, and shrimp, and since we're talking about people's livelihoods you have to be very, very careful about saying things that will get dispersed around the world," Ed Overton, an emeritus professor of environmental science at Louisiana State University told the Christian Science Monitor. "On the other hand, they won't get a paycheck if there's no oysters."

"No one should be worrying about whether the shrimp they're having for dinner is going to have oil on it," Mike Voisin, past president of the National Fisheries Institute, told CNN last week. "[T]hose areas that have oil in them will be blocked by state health officials and not harvested."

Oystermen and shrimpers along the Gulf Coast worked at a feverish pace last week to haul in as much seafood as they could before the slick comes ashore. "We're fighting a losing effort," Louisiana oysterman Mitch Jurasich told The Associated Press.

"If there is any good news, it's that all of our seafood harvest is below deck, so to speak," Ed Overton said. "But if the nursery grounds are destroyed, the harvest this year may not be affected, but years out it will. If you destroy food habitat, this just tumbles and tumbles."

Louisiana's commercial fish industry hauls in $1.8 billion annually, second only to Alaska. Forty percent of the seafood that is caught in the continental U.S. comes from the Gulf of Mexico.

"Depending on what happens in the next few days, this could have a relatively small impact on coastal Louisiana or significant long-term effects, including closed fishing areas, oiled wildlife, and worse," Mark Schexnayder, regional coastal adviser for Louisiana State University, told Business Week.

Two Air Force C-130s were sent to Mississippi late last week and were awaiting orders to start dumping chemicals onto the oil spill. The Navy did its part by sending equipment for the cleanup. Meanwhile, Pentagon officials huddled with the Department of Homeland Security to determine other ways the military might assist in the clean-up.

The leak from a blown-out well a mile underwater is reportedly five times bigger than first thought. Traces of oily residue were spotted near the Mississippi River delta late Thursday, encroaching on the Louisiana shoreline in long, thin lines. The thicker oil was farther offshore. Officials have said they would do everything to keep the Mississippi River open to traffic.

The Coast Guard defended the federal response to the oil spill last week. Asked by all three major television networks Friday if the government is doing enough to force British Petroleum PLC to plug the underwater leak and protect the coast, Brice-O'Hara said the response led by the Coast Guard has been quick and unrelenting and has adapted as the threat grew since a drill rig exploded and sank two weeks ago, causing the seafloor spill.

The oil slick has the potential to become the nation's worst environmental disaster in decades, threatening to dwarf even the Exxon Valdez in size and scope. It endangers hundreds of species of fish, birds and other wildlife along the Gulf Coast, one of the world's richest seafood resources, overflowing with shrimp, oysters and other marine life.

"It is of grave concern," David Kennedy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told The Associated Press about the spill. "I am frightened. This is a very, very big thing. And the efforts that are going to be required to do anything about it, especially if it continues on, are just mind-boggling."

Oil can harm seabirds by causing their feathers to stick together, leaving them without insulation. When the birds preen, they ingest the oil. Nils Warnock, a spill recovery supervisor with the California Oiled Wildlife Care Network at the University of California-Davis, said that extensive contact with the skin can cause burns. Oil swallowed by animals can cause anemia, hemorrhaging and other problems, said Jay Holcomb, executive director of the International Bird Rescue Research Center in California.

"The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico related to the sinking of the BP Transocean Deepwater Horizon drilling rig threatens to impact our coastline, which is a major concern for our seafood industry," Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board, said. "The Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board wants to assure Louisiana seafood lovers around the world that our fisherman are committed to supplying quality Louisiana seafood to consumers and restaurants.

"At this time, we are not sure of the impact that it will have as the oil continues to move towards parts of our coast. Our coastline is more than 300 miles long, and our fishermen continue to fish in waters that are not being impacted by the oil spill. Many of our fishermen have partnered with British Petroleum's Vessel of Opportunity Program which will pay fishermen for the use of their fishing vessels to assist in the ongoing efforts to protect our coastline. Fishermen have allocated some of their vessels to take part in this program. "Louisiana produces more than 30 percent of the nation's domestic seafood and leads the nation in production of shrimp, crawfish, blue crab and oysters. We are committed to keeping the nation in supply of our seafood. In addition to the seafood that continues to be landed on docks, our suppliers have inventory in stock that is available."

The massive oil flow - estimated to be about 210,000 gallons a day - comes from a well drilled by the rig Deepwater Horizon, which exploded in flames April 20 and sank two days later. BP was operating the rig that was owned by Transocean Ltd. The Coast Guard is working with BP to deploy floating booms, skimmers and chemical dispersants, and set controlled fires to burn the oil off the water's surface.

The leak from the ocean floor proved to be far bigger than initially reported, contributing to a growing sense among some in Louisiana that the government failed them again, just as it did during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. President Obama dispatched Cabinet officials to deal with the crisis.

Cade Thomas, a fishing guide in Venice, worried that his livelihood will be destroyed. He said he did not know whether to blame the Coast Guard, the government or BP.

"They lied to us. They came out and said it was leaking 1,000 barrels when I think they knew it was more. And they weren't proactive," he told The Associated Press. "As soon as it blew up, they should have started wrapping it with booms."

BP has reportedly requested more resources from the Defense Department, especially underwater equipment that might be better than what is commercially available. A BP executive said the corporation would "take help from anyone." That includes fishermen who could be hired to help deploy containment boom.

Congressman Cao said an effective response will require both short-term emergency action and long-term investment. Cao announced he will introduce legislation calling for accelerated oil revenue sharing with the federal government.

The bill would speed up the timetable for Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas to begin receiving larger of revenue from drilling leases and royalties under the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act of 2006 (GOMESA). Under the current timetable, the states are set to begin collecting 37.5 percent of royalties from new leases in 2017. Currently, they receive little or nothing. Cao's bill will call for the revenue sharing to begin immediately.

"Every day, Louisiana sacrifices its coast and puts its environment at risk to feed the nation's insatiable appetite for oil," Cao said. "Fifty percent of all oil reaching the nation's refineries crosses Louisiana's coastline. It's only fair that the state be compensated for the costs we are incurring to produce so much energy."

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency and instructed officials to begin preparing for the oil's impact. He also sought federal permission to call up 6,000 National Guard troops to help.

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