Special Reports

Local fishermen feeling effects of Gulf oil spill

BRADENTON — When talk turns toward the future of his business, Capt. Ric Liles doesn’t mince words.

“I’m real concerned,” Liles said. “Very concerned.”

A charter fisherman based out of Ruskin, Liles said he ran 19 trips last month. During a typical May, he runs 25. And he has only booked about nine trips for June.

“I’m not getting the calls I usually get,” he said. “It’s not a huge difference, but it’s noticeable.”

It’s been over a month since the Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico and triggered the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

And while the slick has yet to hit local shores, the negative ripples of the spill have.

“I think what it is, is a lot of people come from the north,” Liles said, “and I think when they hear there’s an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, they think there’s oil all over the Gulf of Mexico.”

The garbled word-of-mouth recently cost Capt. Ray Markham a pair of fishing trips. One client was from Montana, another from Canada.

Both canceled their tarpon trips.

“It’s the same thing,” said Markham, based out of Terra Ceia. “They’re hearing in the news that there’s oil all over Florida — all over the water, all over the beaches...”

When Markham tries telling them differently, that the local waters are oil-free, customers chalk it up to a simple sales pitch.

“They say, ‘Of course you’re going to say that,’ ” Markham said.

Markham is trying his best to spread the word. He posts daily on his Facebook account, writing about how good the fishing is and refers potential customers to different websites.

“I do what I can to encourage people to keep coming down here,” Markham said. “You can only do so much.”

Some charter fishermen are going to great lengths to lure customers, including reducing their daily rates by $100 a day.

“I can’t even turn on the key on my boat and do that,” Markham said.

In a letter this week to Gary Locke, the secretary of commerce, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., expressed his desire that Florida be declared a fishery disaster. Locke has already made similar declarations for Gulf fisheries in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

Nelson also requested a regional economic transition program.

“Since May 2, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has closed growing portions of the Gulf to fishing. Recently, the closure has incorporated more Florida waters,” Nelson wrote. “The most recent closures will acutely impact this industry including the recreational, charter and commercial sectors, as well as owners of related fishery infrastructure.”

Capt. Zach Zacharias, who has been based out of Cortez for roughly 30 years, said though business is still suffering in the wake of the recession, he had a strong month of May.

That said, Zacharias knows the long-term effects of the oil spill can be severe, especially on commercial fishing. There will always be people willing to plunk down some money to spend the day fishing, throwing back whatever they catch. But for those who make their living catching the fish people want to eat, the future may weave a different story.

“My biggest concern in this whole affair is between the oil itself and the chemicals (being used to clean it), all of that is going to get into the food chain,” Zacharias said.

“If these chemical disbursements get into the food chain, and I don’t see how to avoid that, it can be disastrous. The government may tell us is there are unsafe carcinogens in the fish, and it’s going to destroy the entire economy of the Gulf of Mexico.

“It’s a worst-case scenario. But it can happen.”

John Lembo, sports reporter, can be reached at 748-0411, ext. 2097

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