Clean Bill of Health After Gulf Coast Oil Spill

Scientific studies so far have not revealed any signs of contamination of gamefish populations in the Gulf of Mexico off the Louisiana coast. Photo: John Sherman

Like everyone else, I watched in horror the spring and early summer of 2010 while millions of barrels of oil spewed into the ocean. Eleven rig workers from the Deepwater Horizon lost their lives, and the entire ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico seemed in jeopardy as the oil boiled up from the ocean floor, spread across the surface, washed up in tar balls on beaches, and filtered into marshes and other sensitive areas.

Fear fueled our interest in the disaster — fear for the seabirds, turtles, mammals, fish, crustaceans, and the host of plants and creatures that sustain them. Fishermen were perhaps most deeply affected by this environmental specter. Most Americans have never fished in the Gulf coast, so the bad news came across like a terrible murder in another city involving people you don't know. If you fished there, however, the news was personal. Would it ever be the same? Would we again hunt tailing redfish in the Delta marshes, or cast to blackfin tuna feeding behind shrimp boats?


One of my fondest fishing memories was of an overnight trip to the oil rigs in the blue water offshore from Venice, Louisiana. In the evening and through the night we fished under the lights of the Mars oil


platform where baitfish — attracted by the lights and structure of the rig — became prey for yellowfin tuna. Our biggest on the fly that night was 65 pounds of pure muscle. And in the morning we found ourselves at the Deepwater Horizon catching much more manageable skipjack and blackfin tuna, and well as high-jumping dorado that were feeding on a baitball clustered around a slowly swimming sea turtle.

Would anything like this happen again to me or one of thousands of other comrades in arms who share the same passion for sportfishing in the Gulf, whether it's in 3,000 feet or 3 feet of water?

In the Oct-Dec 2010 issue Mike Conner wrote "After the Spill" and reported that the fishing ban was lifted and that charter captains were once again available for hire — but that bookings were practically nonexistent. And at that time many questions remained.

Were fish stocks depleted? Was spawning and recruitment jeopardized in a manner that would destroy future year classes of gamefish? Was the bottom of the food chain poisoned, and would those toxins build up in top-of-the-food-chain predators? Only time would tell.

A new yellowfin tagging program will help provide baseline data on tuna populations and their migrations. Photo: John Sherman

Good News

In August of 2011 I traveled with Capt. Eric Newman of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) to discover firsthand if and how the fishing had been affected, and how state and federal governments were studying the effects of the spill. In August of 2010 the LDWF and BP Exploration and Production Inc. signed the Louisiana Fisheries Monitoring Agreement, which established ongoing funding for the LDWF to monitor inshore, nearshore, and offshore fisheries.

Inshore monitoring began the week of the oil spill and the offshore testing started in February of 2011. Newman's job is to every month catch and kill 18 different major gamefish species and send tissue samples to a testing facility to see if the fish have detectable levels of petroleum from the spill itself, or other chemicals that may be the result of dispersants from the cleanup and recovery. If gamefish carried residue from the spill, not only would they be unsafe for human consumption, but it would be a harbinger that fish populations are suffering. In the year following,

Newman and other staffers caught and sampled more than 3,000 gamefish in five different Coastal Study Areas. The verdict (so far) is a clean bill of health for gamefish like tuna, snapper, cobia, and amberjack in offshore waters. The lab tested for 20 different chemical compounds and found basically nothing, and the results are the same in samples taken in nearshore and inshore fisheries that deal more with redfish, seatrout, and the like. The ongoing result of these studies are all online in the interest of public transparency at gulfsource.org.

Did fish populations decrease as a result of the spill? It seems unlikely but that's difficult if not impossible to determine due to the fact that there is no baseline data from before the spill. We do know that there was no evidence of a major fish kill during or after the spill, and since all the samples are still coming up clean, it's unlikely that there will be a future downturn. When I "helped" Newman catch his samples (with a fly rod) the fishing around the offshore rigs was as good as I remembered with repeated doubles and triples of three different tuna species, red snapper, and other species that left us tired and happy at the end of the day.

Capt. Eric Newman captures gamefish in five different Gulf zones, and sends tissue samples to a research facility for testing. Photo: John Sherman

More important, the monitoring programs today are providing the baseline studies that could (and should) improve fisheries management in the region. For example, Newman doesn't kill everything he catches, and the "monitoring" agreement has provided both motivation and funding for numerous projects, including the LDWF's yellowfin tuna tagging program. We tagged and released yellowfin tuna with Newman in August but to be effective the tagging program must be widespread enough to tag, release, and then re-catch enough tagged tuna to get a baseline on the population and their seasonal movements.

To get more of this data, LDWF in September 2011 enlisted the help of recreational anglers, kicking off the public tuna tagging program with a tag-and-release tuna tournament in September and ongoing participation by the recreational angling public. To get your own tags, email fishtags@wlf.la.gov and join the effort to catch-and-release yellowfin tuna.

The funding has also helped LDWF purchase prohibitively expensive pop-up satellite tags, which record the movement of migratory pelagic fish and after months of use, release, float to the surface, and upload data that shows researchers the migratory patterns of fish that have mostly been a mystery to the state and federal agencies that regulate them.

Ross Purnell is the editor of Fly Fisherman.

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