One year after spill: Gulf beaches healthy

skennedy@bradenton.comApril 17, 2011 

MANATEE -- One year after the devastating Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, not so much has changed here: The beaches remain pristine, tourists are returning, and some monetary claims have been paid.

Fishermen based in Cortez say they are not seeing any oil on their distant forays into the Gulf of Mexico, and seafood sales appear to be recovering.

Still, there is a residual effect from the massive oil spill, which never actually touched Manatee shores: a heightened awareness of the fragility of the local environment.

“It’s given a recognition of the inherent value of our county’s resources, yes, that are fragile,” said Charlie Hunsicker, director of the county’s Department of Natural Resources.

“While we’ve seen much resiliency -- a bounce back from red tide and from development ... I don’t think it’s hit home yet that we could be exposed to the damages that occurred, and continue to plague, Louisiana and northern Gulf states.”

Along the sugar-sand beaches of Anna Maria Island, local daytrippers are mobbing the shore and eco-tourism firms report a steady increase in customers who want to see the area’s coastal habitat.

“I’m having a pretty banner year, at the moment,” said Shawn Duytschaver, owner of Native Rentals in Holmes Beach, which rents kayaks and canoes for trips along a green shoreline blessed with abundant wildlife.

His business is maybe even a little better than it was this time last year, just a few days short of the April 20 anniversary of the explosion and fire at a drilling rig near New Orleans that eventually spewed more than 210 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

European tourists, who vanished during the oil spill, are coming back, Duytschaver says. And Americans are continuing to show a greater interest in the outdoors and its wild places.

“I’ve been in the business 25 years, and it’s always been a growing sport,” he said. “Eighty percent are first-timers -- it shows a lot of room for growth. Lots of people are getting away from motorboats.”

Tourists, locals crowd beach

English and Canadian tourists are beginning to come back, with May looking very good, says Mary Ann Brockman, president of the Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce.

“People for a long time thought ‘oil’ meant the whole state,” she said. “You couldn’t convince people it was in northern Florida. Even local people said, ‘I’m not going out to the beach.’”

Asked if the threat had spurred a new appreciation for the county’s unique natural beauty, she replied, “I think it has; I think people are thinking, ‘It’s absolutely awesome, why didn’t I come out before today?’

“We’re getting people from Lakewood Ranch, who are going, ‘I never knew this was out here,’” Brockman said.

They want to take boating eco tours, walk through parks and see the wildlife.

“I hope we all get a better appreciation of it -- this is all we have.”

The county’s tourism chief, Elliott Falcione, is encouraged by a recent trip to Europe.

“Tour operators in both Germany and the U.K. have told us recently the oil perception is a non-issue, and bookings to Florida are strong,” said Falcione, executive director at Bradenton’s Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“That made us feel really, really good.”

BP restitutions come slowly

The county and others also have collected some restitution from British Petroleum, the oil company responsible for the spill.

BP last month sent $43,412.77 -- actually $12,334.57 more than the county’s claim, said Nick Azzara, county information outreach coordinator.

The money repays the county for the staff time required to deal with the oil spill, which included emergency preparations and planning.

“Basically, we submitted a claim for the amount we expected to get back, but provided documentation sufficient for greater reimbursement,” Azzara said.

Local fishermen, too, have collected remuneration for lost business, but in a haphazard fashion, according to Glen Brooks, president of the South Offshore Fishermen’s Association, representing about 500 members based in Cortez and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast.

Brooks is among those who collected BP restitution for business losses to his fleet of fishing boats. He employs 21 who traverse the entire Gulf.

He was among those who were puzzled at why one claim was paid, and another denied.

“Yes, I filed two or three claims,” said Brooks. “They paid a little on couple of them, and rejected the others, no rhyme or reason for the way they handled the claim.”

He declined to state the total amount of compensation he had collected, but said it was a “small percentage” of what he had sought.

“I think a lot of people are unhappy about how BP has handled claims, that’s where the lawyers eventually will come in,” said Brooks. “A lot of people are hoping they don’t have to go that route.”

BP officials did not respond to an e-mail request for comment about the claims process.

Even though Brooks’ fishing crews have been working the Gulf regularly, including the northern areas where oil stained the shores, none has seen any oil.

“All the fish have been good,” said Brooks. “We’re not seeing any dead ones out there now; we’re not seeing any oil.”

What fishermen are concerned about, he noted, are the long-term effects of oil on the development of sea life.

“We didn’t figure we’d have immediate impacts on our industry, but the long-term effects we’ll be looking at -- whether we lose part of a class of fish, or if the chemical dispersants have any effect on the roe,” said Brooks. “So, we’ll be constantly testing our fish for contaminants.”

Most of the Gulf waters that had been closed to fishing during the spill to insure against chemical contamination are now open again.

Only 1,041 square miles remain closed to fishing surrounding the Deepwater Horizon wellhead, according to officials from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

As of April 11, 59 miles of shoreline remained heavily or moderately oiled, all in the northern gulf, according to John Ewald, public affairs specialist for NOAA. During the spill, oil has been detected on more than 1,050 linear miles, he said.

Drilling ban continues

Last spring’s unfolding disaster almost immediately halted efforts in the Florida Legislature to allow oil and gas drilling closer to Florida’s coast.

By summer, then-Gov. Charlie Crist had called a special session to take the first step toward a constitutional amendment banning gas and oil drilling in state waters; the legislature declined to cooperate, and the proposal died.

But offshore drilling in waters near the Florida coast remains banned by the U.S. And since the spill, U.S. officials have been discussing offshore drilling safety with Mexico, Brazil and other countries.

One big fear: Those discussions have not occurred with Cuba, where plans are under way to drill just 60 miles off the Florida coast and several global companies have signed leases. Port Manatee is actually the closest U.S. port to Cuba.

Scientists are continuing to survey fish stocks, and are on the lookout for long-term effects, said Clay Porch, Ph.D., director of NOAA’s Sustainable Fisheries Division, Southeast Fisheries Science Center, part of the National Marine Fisheries Service, based in Miami.

His division focuses on stock assessment in the southwest Gulf, the Caribbean, and with large pelagic stocks in the Atlantic.

“What my group is trying to do is collect all data before the spill and after, and see if we can detect a decrease in abundance we might attribute to the spill,” Porch said.

Long-term effects of the oil disaster, if there are any, will appear eventually in the data, he predicted. “In certain local areas, you can guess what the long-term effects might be, especially where we know the oil made contact with the bottom,” said Porch.

In terms of plankton communities in a particular area, a substantial decrease over time would probably be spotted by researchers, he said.

“But keep in mind, the Gulf is a big place, the spill didn’t affect everyone in the Gulf,” Porch explained. “It’s not comparable to a more concentrated spill in a smaller body of water.

“That’s not to say there might not be some serious long-term effects, but right now, I don’t think anybody is prepared to say what those effects might be.”

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7031.

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