The Deepwater Horizon oil well rig explosion and rupture delivered an environmental and economic blow along the Gulf Coast that may reverberate for many years to come. Though the gusher was finally plugged July 14, many fly fishers fear we have only scratched the surface in regard to the toxic effects of both the oil and the dispersants that will remain in the Gulf of Mexico for years to come.
As conservation-minded anglers, we are as troubled by this disaster and long-term prognosis as anyone, and find ourselves asking the selfish question: When can we go fly fishing in Gulf coastal waters again?
Well, how does right now sound to you?
Though much of the round-the-clock media blitz of this event gave the impression that much of the Gulf Coast is blanketed in crude and tar balls, most of the region’s beaches, bays, and marshes have thus far been spared a direct impact by the oil. And there is reason for optimism, too, on the recreational fishing economic front. By mid-July, state marine fisheries managers from Louisiana to Florida had lifted previous closures to recreational fishing in their respective state waters. Anglers are enthusiastically returning to the water, and guides are raring to put them on the fish.
As of July 15, Louisiana state waters, with the exception of a swath of Chandeleur Sound, the Chandeleur Islands, and the mouth of the Mississippi River, were reopened to recreational fishing, though commercial harvesting closures were still in place.
The Mississippi Department of Marine Resources (DMR) opened Mississippi territorial waters to catch-and-release recreational hook-and-line fishing on July 20. According to Lauren Thompson, spokesperson for Mississippi’s DMR, public safety concerns prompted the no-take measure.
“Tissue samples from finfish and shellfish were sent to NOAA, which will pass them on to the Food and Drug Administration to check for the presence of hydrocarbons, which have potentially carcinogenic effects on humans,” said Thompson. “Should the results be favorable, we foresee opening state waters to both recreational and commercial fishing harvesting. Anglers can visit our web site (dmr.ms.gov) for updates.”
The Alabama Department of Conservation also opened previously closed state waters to recreational fishing in mid-June—also under a catch-and-release restriction. Florida state waters, with the exception of Escambia County in the Panhandle, have remained open to recreational fishing through the whole ordeal.
Despite the recreational openings, all saltwater fly-fishing guides, shops, and supportive businesses took a major hit from the spill, and it couldn’t have come at a worse time; too many shops and guide services are already struggling, or were forced to close their doors, in this tough economy.
Because of both substantiated and exaggerated reports of oil impacts, the phone simply quit ringing for many. Fishing guides as far from the spill as the Florida Keys, and even the Florida Atlantic coast had to go on damage control, as did tourism bureaus and travel agents, to battle the perception that all coastal saltwater fishing in Florida was a lost cause.
At the epicenter of things, New Orleans’ Uptown Angler fly shop (uptownangler.com) suffered a virtual halt in business and new guide-trip bookings for the upcoming fall and winter months, just when redfishing is best. According to employee Fred Stivers, once the media got hold of the story, the phones stopped ringing.
“Within two weeks of the spill, new trip bookings dried up,” said Stivers. “Luckily, we did not experience many cancellations for late summer and fall trips already on the books, but that’s only because we scrambled to update our customers on our web site with accurate information in regard to any closures and the general water conditions. The fact is, much of the interior marsh that our guides fish was not, and is not now, swamped in oil as many assumed. There are plenty of redfish, black drum, trout, baitfish, and shrimp in many areas, and as of mid-July most of Louisiana state waters are open to recreational fishing.”
Stivers went on to say that the shop was a ghost town through June while the well gushed, BP floundered, and waters remained closed. But things rebounded somewhat in late July once restrictions on recreational fishing access were lifted.
“Our customers are educated enough to go into the marsh where allowed, and make their own assumptions. They will see that much of the marsh is fishable and doing quite well,” said Stivers. Fly-fishing guide Alec Griffin (louisianaflywater.com) fishes the interior marsh both east and west of the Mississippi River, and said the rumors surrounding the oil spill were the biggest detriment to the local guiding economy.
“We’ve been trying to put out the fires,” said Griffin, in reference to misinformation regarding the breadth of the oil coverage. “There have been some oiled shorelines, but other than the chemical odor that came on strong southeast winds at times, I personally have not seen oil, or oiled or dead wildlife or fish in the interior marsh where I guide. I’ve never quit fishing since the spill. If anything, there are more fish and baitfish this summer than last. The trend of improving redfishing, fishing in general, and marsh vitality that started shortly after Katrina continues. And I expect a great fall and winter redfishing season to come.”
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According to Griffin, he has booked few days from new customers since the April spill, but trips already on his books will be taken, unless there is a drastic change in the situation. And he did submit a claim to BP for lost business, but doesn’t appear to be dwelling on it. Rather, he is putting his efforts into keeping his guiding business on track, and getting the word out.
“If I felt that the fall/winter fly-fishing season was in jeopardy, my customers would be the first to know. They would get that from me firsthand,” said Griffin.
Though one would assume that Louisiana guides and outfitters shouldered the brunt of this disaster, others along the Gulf also suffered lost income. Capt. Rick Walman of Ocean Springs, Mississippi (southernflyoutfitters.com) reported that despite the fact that Mississippi inshore waters saw less oil impact than Louisiana and even Alabama, his business dried up when his state waters were closed for about a month.
“I lost quite a few trips already on the books for midsummer fly fishing during that period, but the calls quit coming for future trips. I blame that on media reports of blackened beaches from here to Florida,” said Walman. “I do fish from eastern Louisiana to the Alabama line, but primarily around the Mississippi barrier islands, which did see tar balls and some oil at times.”
From late late April through early July, Walman did cleanup work for a BP contractor to fill the void. “In my home waters, I saw minimal impacts as far as oil slicks go, and observed no dead fish, baitfish, or dead birds,” said Walman. “Unless there is some major change in this oil spill, I’m optimistic about the upcoming fall and early winter fly-fishing season, which is my busiest time when I target tripletail, and of course, redfish.”
Gordon Robertson, vice president of the American Sportfishing Association (ASA), says results from his organization’s industry survey on the economic impact of the spill are telling. Results of the ongoing survey and other industry actions can be found on the ASA web site asafishing.org.
“A great majority of fishing guides, marinas, bait and tackle shops, and many supportive businesses that depend on sport-fishing participation were hit hard. In fact, 71 percent surveyed have put in claims to BP for lost revenue,” said Robertson. “Some of the lost business was due to misconceptions about the breadth of the oil spill. At most, 37 percent of Gulf waters from Louisiana to Florida were closed. The way the media portrayed things, you would have never guessed that two-thirds of state waters remained open to recreational fishing. Hopefully, the capping of the well will spur anglers to go fishing again. And lots of us are crossing our fingers that there will be supplemental money in the federal budget for recovery.”
The short-term outlook may be promising, but no one is denying that surface oil, and perhaps even submersed oil, could be driven toward the Gulf Coast should a tropical storm or hurricane pass through.
In late July, weak tropical storm Bonnie crossed Florida and fizzled before making landfall in Louisiana. That forced cleanup crews and relief well drilling personnel to head ashore for their safety, delaying the work. This cat-and-mouse game will likely be replayed given the grim forecast for an extremely active hurricane season. Once personnel returned, pilots who scan the waters for oil-skimming vessels reported that surface oil was suddenly hard to find, which suggests that it will be oil that cannot be recovered.
So what about the long-term effects of the millions upon millions of gallons of oil and toxic dispersants that remain in the Gulf? The toxic effects of oil and chemicals could last for years, and some fear it could destroy not only habitat from the shores to deep reaches of the Gulf, but the vitality of the Gulf’s food web, and spawning cycles of everything from plankton to bluefin tuna.
Dr. Aaron Adams, manager of Mote Marine Laboratory’s Habitat Ecology Program and director of research for Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, says that the uncertainties surrounding the “lifespan” of the oil’s toxins are troubling, and should be of great concern.
“Citizens have heard through the media that bacteria will in time consume the oil, but consider that much of the oil finds its way into sediments in both estuaries and the ocean floor,” said Adams. “Much of that sediment is anoxic, that is, devoid of oxygen. No bacteria or other organisms can live there, so the oil will remain intact, creating a chronic source of long-term contamination, and then you have major meteorological events that disrupt sediment, which would dislodge buried contaminants back into the water.”
Adams says oil foists a whole suite of detrimental effects on marine environments.
“In the marsh, oiled grasses will likely die, and if they come back, not as lush as before. Heavily oiled shores will lose many crustaceans, such as fiddler crabs that are not only a main forage for fish such as redfish, black drum, and others, but help aerate that mud to promote robust vegetation growth. Oil hydrocarbons also interrupt the larval stages of both finfish and shellfish.
“As for spawning, take redfish for example. Reds need to return to open Gulf waters where surface oil and reported oil plumes exist, which deplete oxygen in the water. Will the fish go somewhere else? Eggs of most fish float at or near the surface temporarily before they hatch in the open Gulf. Will those hatched larvae survive? A lot of uncertainties exist,” said Adams.
“While it is good news that much of Louisiana’s marsh, and other Gulf states’ inshore water is open and has good fishing now, we can’t turn a blind eye. Baseline data on saltwater fisheries have been sorely lacking, and my hopes are that this spill will be a call for action.
“With thousands of working oil rigs out there, chances are this will happen again. This event should be a wake-up call to anglers to demand major changes in agencies and industries charged with safeguarding the marine environment.”
Mike Conner is the former editor of Shallow Water Angler.