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US oil spill panel weighs mounting economic impact

* Seafood, tourism industries feeling pain of spill

* Groups plead their cases before presidential panel on oil (For full spill coverage

NEW ORLEANS, July 12 (Reuters) - Sal Sunseri’s P&J Oyster Company has worked Louisiana waters since 1876, making it the oldest operating oyster processor in the United States.

But the future is grim, he told a presidential panel on Monday, due to the devastating BP Plc BP.LBP.N spill that has been gushing oil into the Gulf of Mexico since late April.

“Due to this unnatural catastrophe in our water, P&J may forever be extinct,” he said.

Sunseri, who has laid off 11 workers, was among a group of speakers from the fishing, seafood and tourism industries sharing stories of loss with the seven-member commission investigating the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

Keith Overton, chairman of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, said tourism operators across his state were already suffering even though tar balls had been found only on the Florida Panhandle in the north.

At his company, TradeWinds Island Resorts near St Petersburg, calls from potential customers are down 25 percent, he said.

“These losses have occurred in our area without a single drop of oil reaching our shore,” said Overton.

He implored the panel not to overlook legitimate claims from businesses hit by a public misperception that all Gulf Coast areas should be avoided.

“I think our losses are going to be scrutinized. Give us the benefit of the doubt,” Overton said.


President Barack Obama set up the commission with an executive order in late May, a month after a rig drilling a well for BP, the Deepwater Horizon owned by Transocean Ltd RIGN.VXRIG.N, sank after an explosion.

Eleven workers were killed and the damaged well has been spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico from a mile (1.6 km) under the surface. BP is using a containment system to capture some of the oil and hopes to finally plug the leak by mid-August.

Michael Hecht of Greater New Orleans Inc, an economic development agency, warned the panel not to underestimate the damage of a moratorium on deepwater drilling sought by the Obama administration.

“The economic impact from the oil spill itself, however broad and long-lasting, will likely be dwarfed by the impact of the moratorium,” Hecht said.

A drilling freeze threatens 24,000 jobs in Louisiana alone, representing nearly $2 billion in wages, he said.

While commercial fishermen and seafood operators are at risk of losing their livelihoods and way of life due to the spill, the crisis is also hurting sport fishing.

That pastime supports a wide variety of small business, from bait and tackle shops to marinas, charter vessels, hotels, and gas stations, said Jeff Angers, president of the Center for Coastal Conservation, a group that advocates sport fishing.

“If the entire Gulf were closed to recreational fishing from May to August, the region would would lose ... $1.1 billion and about 19,000 jobs,” Angers told the panel.

The spill has wreaked havoc on delicate coastal ecosystems, killing birds, sea turtles and dolphins and threatening the spawning season of fish.

Containment and cleanup have taken too long, said Sunseri of P&J Oyster, expressing a common complaint in the area.

“Our livelihoods have been drastically jeopardized,” he said. “I don’t see a future in the oyster business as it once was.” (Editing by John O’Callaghan)