Special Reports

Manatee fishermen prepare for the worst

MANATEE — It’s a wait-and-see game for Gulf fishermen as they prepare for the worst — residue from the BP oil spill hitting fisheries along the coast.

“We could lose several year classes of fish,” said Glenn Brooks, president of the 500-member Gulf Fishermen’s Association. “We are definitely concerned. Our main objective is to keep it out of the bays and estuaries.”

The group has already been in touch with officials about providing fishing boats for the BP spill cleanup. Brooks estimates he could round up as many as 200 boats from Fort Myers to Apalachicola for the effort.

“We are putting a plan together and working on a hurry-up timeframe,” he said Monday.

While fishermen are still plying their craft offshore, there is a lot of fear that the oil spill won’t get caught up in the Loop Current as scientists predict and get carried southward to the Florida Keys. They fear it will wash ashore here. “Right now the grouper have just gotten through the spawning season,” Brooks said. “It could potentially wipe out our fisheries.”

Karen Bell, owner of the Star Fish Co., in Cortez had one word to describe the threat: Scary.

“I can’t imagine all the fisheries they’re closing up there and all the people it’s impacting — fishermen, fishhouses, restaurants, customers, consumers,” she said. “The potential is huge, and that’s just the commercial side. You’ve got the recreation industry that brings a lot of money into the economy, too.”

A dozen of the company’s fleet of 20 deep water fishing boats are working within an area about 50 miles from shore.

“We haven’t heard anyone say they’d seen anything of the slicks,” Bell said. “It’s kind of business as usual. It’s sort of out of their control. They’re paying attention, but doing what they do.”

The oil spill has eliminated Bell’s company from getting Louisiana oysters, but they are presently fishing for grouper, a mainstay, and mullet, which is “starting to fatten up a little,” she said. “We’re getting mackerel and pompano now, too. This is the time of year, and we’re seeing things about a month later because of the cold.”

Bell doesn’t want to sound selfish, but she hopes the oil slick stays far away.

“If the lower half of the Gulf is left unscathed, we’d be able to meet some of that demand. If that oil comes down here, if fish aren’t able to survive, it’s definitely scary.”

Shrimper Mike Fannon is worried about the potential for an oil slick hitting the grass flats where he shrimps each night in the bays near Anna Maria Island.

“An oil slick could be devastating, and it won’t just be shrimp, it will get everything,” Fannon said.

The life-long fisherman catches anywhere from a couple of thousand to 20,000 shrimp a night and says right now it appears the recent cold snap might already have depleted some of the stock.

“We definitely don’t need something like this (spill),” he said.

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