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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