Manatee business owners fear threat from oil spill contamination

MANATEE — Curtis Hemmel gazes across the clear waters where he raises juvenile shellfish that are so sensitive, they are used by scientists in many parts of the world as a key indicator of water quality.

“It’s similar to the canary in the coal mine,” said Hemmel, managing director at Bay Shellfish Co. in Terra Ceia. He is concerned about the possibility that a huge gulf oil spill might blacken the idyllic bayou in which he nurtures tiny clams, bay scallops and oysters.

“We’re concerned with how the oil may affect not only farm-raised clams, but even small levels of contaminated water can affect small bivalves in the hatchery,” he said.

Hemmel dismisses the notion he might be able to protect his living products — which he sells for restoration, research and commercial production — by moving them from the lush haven where they thrive in lower Tampa Bay.

“There’s no economically feasible way for us to protect against hydrogen-carbon pollutants,” he said. “We could move everything, but the pollutants may stay.”

He’s also discussing with state and federal officials whether chemicals they’re considering using to disperse oil could be toxic to marine life.

Hemmel, part of the state’s $50 million-per-year clam industry, was among many business owners pondering possible hazards posed by a huge gulf oil slick threatening Florida following a fire and explosion at a BP drilling platform off Louisiana.

The owner of an eco-tourism business is setting aside money for lean times; a resort owner has encouraged local lawmakers to vote against drilling; and a businessman who recently opened a new fish market is checking the slick’s path every hour.

A different kind of adversity

Shawn Duytschaver, owner of Native Rental Kayaks, knows a little something about business adversity. Over 21 years, he has weathered episodes of red tide and multiple hurricanes.

But he fears that even a little oil will scare away tourists, who are the lifeblood of his Holmes Beach business.

“It’s all driven by tourism, and if it impacts tourism, it impacts all the rest,” said Duytschaver.

His strategy is to set aside a little extra money to carry him through, should his business falter. He’s also hoping that since his kayak eco-tours primarily take place a mile or two off the beach, he may not take such a hit.

“Most of my kayaks, I run in mangrove habitat,” he said. “They would be mostly unaffected; the beach estuaries are called ‘the kidneys of the sea,’ they help filter and digest all the pollutants.”

“A couple of miles away from beach, it might get pretty filtered,” he said. “The beaches is where you’re going to see it.”

Tourism concerns

Gayle Luper, owner of Bungalow Beach Resort, is already fielding cancellations and trying to calm agitated guests.

“They’re concerned their beach vacations are going to be ruined by the Louisiana oil spill,” said Luper, whose Anna Maria Island resort offers 15 rooms. “Among current guests, it is a major topic of discussion.”

All her scheduled guests did come Friday, she said. Northerners arrived mostly from Chicago and New York, but there were plenty of Floridians, too.

Her response to the problem is to urge officials to vote against oil drilling.

“My plan for the next week or two is to monitor the situation closely, and encourage our lawmakers, including Gov. (Charlie) Crist and Rep. (Bill) Galvano, to vote ‘no’ for offshore drilling for Florida,” she said.

“Alaska has plenty of oil, Alaska wants oil rigs, so I think Alaska should have them,” she added. “We need to protect our beaches and tourism.”

Robin Parsons, business development director at the Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance, has not heard much about the spill’s potential effects from her organization’s nearly 1,000 members. They hail mostly from inland areas of eastern Manatee and Sarasota counties.

But the spill concerns her because of its potential effect on tourism, which buoys so many businesses.

“Red tide is short term; a hurricane, you can recover from,” Parsons noted. “Oil is hard to recover from — think of the sand on the beach alone, that’s the scary part of it.

“Personally, I think it’s a huge concern. This could have a grave effect on our tourism, one of our largest stimulus of the economy here,” she said. “It really is such a big part of our industry down here, it can affect us on so many different levels.”

Watching, waiting

Mike Guccione and two partners recently opened Ocean Harvest Market, a Bradenton business that sells fish and barbecue.

“We’re commercial fishermen ourselves,” he explained about himself and two partners who work as owner-managers. “We operate three boats and so far, our operations have not been affected. All our planning is more ‘what if’ scenarios.”

Hourly, he is checking the oil spill’s trajectory on the computer.

“So far, so good, the winds are still pushing the oil north into Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, the Florida panhandle,” he said. “It’s still favorable for us, and unfavorable for the upper gulf coast.”

Asked how a spill might affect his business, he said, “It would depend upon what it was. A massive oil slick would be a disaster of apocalyptic proportions.

“It’s not just the fishing industry, but all tourism, all the waterside real estate, and something many people haven’t mentioned: a billion tons of fish rotting in the sun, soaked with oil.

“Can you even imagine the smell? For the state of Florida, it would be an unparalleled, apocalyptic disaster, a financial nightmare.

“Not like a hurricane.”

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