July 25, 2011
Florida Fishing Captains Helping Clear the Waters
Oil response reshapes towns and lives.
By Ed Mashburn
The Deepwater Horizon accident continues to be a concern for all Florida anglers and coastal residents, and the long term effect of the oil on Florida's fishing, both inshore and offshore, is, as yet, not well known. One of the real problems faced by concerned sportsmen is the lack of reliable, accurate information about the current effects of the oil and the actions being taken at this time to alleviate the damage caused by the oil to Florida's inshore and offshore fishing. But both Florida Department of Environmental Protection sources and captains using their fishing boats as vessels of opportunity in the cleanup operations provide two reliable fonts of information about what's really been going on this summer in the Panhandle.
Captain Wes Rozier, vice-president of the Pensacola Charter Boat Association tells us that in the Panhandle, professional fishing boats and crews are being issued contracts from BP as vessels of opportunity in the following manner: Big boats capable of staying out and working in six foot seas are used to attack and skim large plumes of oil offshore. Boats in the 25- to 40-foot length are used nearshore to attack smaller plumes, and smaller boats work the bays and passes for smaller tarballs and other oil. More than 639 boats of all sizes are being used at this time in Florida, and more captains and boats are being hired to aid in the clean up daily.
Captain Scott Robson, president of the Destin Charterboat Association, says that most of the fishing boats and captains at Destin are now contracted for the vessels of opportunity program. Robson says, “The VOO program has taken a lot of the anxiety and uncertainty out of the future. When fishing is being closed around you, it gives us some hope to do something to help.”
In addition to the boats hired to help with the cleanup operations, more than 500,000 feet of protective booms have been placed in Florida waters to keep oil from reaching sensitive areas inshore.
One of the big questions we all want to have answered is how effective all of the activities have been so far. Amy Graham, Interim Press Secretary for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, says, “The effectiveness of cleanup activities depends upon the type of product impacting Florida's waters and beaches. Hand cleanup has proven to be the most effective method for cleaning up oil on the impacted Northwest Florida beaches. Effectiveness of skimming is based on the type of product in the water. For example, bay skimmers that are being utilized in Florida's inland waterbodies work well for thick contained oil with little debris. Offshore skimmers are more effective for the types of oil closer to the incident site.”
Rozier feels that the cleanup operation has helped, also. He says,” I think it has minimized the damages. There has been minimal sightings in the upper bay system. I have not seen the first bit of oil in the upper bay.”
Rozier says that the local knowledge and resourcefulness of the local guides and captains has proven most helpful in the cleanup process. For example, the tools used at the beginning of the cleanup—shovels and other solid tools—were clumsy and not very effective in removing oil. A local captain employed by BP came up with another tool to use—an old tennis racket, which many others now use, too. This lets the water and sand pass through, but it traps and holds the thick oil so it can be lifted and removed. Robson tells us that captains in the Destin area are using swimming pool skimmer nets to remove oil in the water. It often takes local knowledge and experience to come up with the best solutions to problems.
The big question that remains to be answered is what are the projected future impact areas? The Florida Department of Environmental Protection says that as of late July, tarballs, tarpatties, sheen and mousse have been reported from Escambia to Bay Counties. NOAA observations indicate that no significant amounts of oil are moving into the Loop Current.
NOAA has predicted that if oil does enter the Loop Current, it will ultimately impact southern parts of Florida. Most of the impact would be weathered oil in the form of tarballs and tarpatties. A situation which no one wants to think about is what would happen if the Gulf has tropical weather this summer. A hurricane or even a tropical storm could change the potential for damage greatly. Dr. Bob Shipp of the University of South Alabama says,” Any sort of tropical weather systems will have unforeseeable effects on the oil.”
Rozier says, “Right now, we're doing a pretty good job. We're not losing the battle—we're holding our own.” As far as what is needed to improve the cleanup work, Rozier tells us,” The biggest thing is getting enough supplies to sop it up. Materials are not coming fast enough.”
Finally, Captain Scott Robson says of the cleanup effort, “No one likes to sit around the dock. The people who work the hardest are the people who live in the community.”