BILOXI, Mississippi (Reuters) - Some U.S. Gulf Coast fishermen say they have caught crabs with black-stained gills and others report seeing fish and marine life gathering strangely on the sea surface following the massive BP Plc oil spill.
They fear these abnormalities could point to a lasting and potentially devastating impact on their fishing grounds and livelihoods from the world’s worst offshore oil accident, and they say BP and the government may be downplaying the issue.
State and federal authorities, who insist they are closely following safety protocols, have begun reopening selected segments of Gulf of Mexico waters to recreational and commercial fishing after the successful capping and cementing of BP’s blown-out deepwater Macondo well in recent weeks.
But fiercely independent Gulf fishermen, many of whom harbor a deep mistrust of authority since the much-criticized government response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, believe both President Barack Obama’s administration and BP may be moving too hastily to close this ecological and financial nightmare.
“The government is telling us the waters and seafood are safe, but I would not feed my family on anything I catch out there now,” said Jerry Miller, who has fished off Mississippi’s coast for 35 years.
In contrast, President Obama has said publicly that Gulf Coast seafood is very much on the menu in the White House. “Americans can confidently and safely enjoy Gulf seafood once again ... In fact we had some yesterday,” he said on Monday.
As a relief well closes in to permanently kill the ill-fated BP borehole, government scientists admit it could be years before the full long-term spill impact on the Gulf’s marine ecosystem is known. Nearly 5 million barrels of oil is estimated to have spewed into Gulf waters, but the government says 75 percent has now evaporated or been dispersed or contained.
“The BP Deepwater Horizon incident was without a doubt a very significant environmental disaster ... it will undoubtedly continue to play out for a long, long time,” Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told reporters this week.
But reassurances from the president downward that the administration will not abandon Gulf residents do not convince local fishermen. Many fear they have still not been told the full truth about the toxic effects on sea life of the oil and millions of gallons of chemical dispersants that were sprayed or pumped onto and into Gulf waters to disperse the crude.
“Fishermen here are calling it ‘Voodoo seafood’ because we are all cursed,” said Bill Thompson of Long Beach, Mississippi. Fishermen from Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida gathered in Biloxi last week to discuss their fears.
“We do not think it is safe but the state officials say it is. Who do you trust? The people that know these waters or the government?” Thompson added.
Some local fishermen say they are seeing strange behavior by marine life — mullets, crabs and other creatures which normally stay well under water have been sighted congregating on the surface — and they relate this to the spill.
“It looks like all of the sea life is trying to get out of the water,” said Alabama fisherman Stan Fournier. “In the 40 years I have been on these waters I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
Earlier this month, some Hancock County, Mississippi, crabbers reported that when they cracked open their catch they found the crabs’ gills tainted black, possibly by oil. But state environmental authorities said shrimp, oyster and crab samples have not shown any dangerous contamination so far.
Federal authorities say they are being extra cautious over seafood safety, but do not immediately have all the answers.
“I think it’s fair to say we won’t know for some time yet the full impact ... Many of the suspected impacts will be on the juvenile stages, the eggs or the larvae, for example, of fish, but also crabs, shrimp, other species. And it’s very difficult to detect as it’s happening,” NOAA’s Lubchenco said.
HUNT FOR SUB-SURFACE OIL
Government and private scientific vessels are out in the Gulf testing the waters and marine catches.
Part of the search is focused on trying to ascertain the full extent of oil that has remained under the surface in the water column — a hotly discussed subject among scientists.
Crab traps carrying absorbent pom-poms are being lowered to the seabed along the coast to see if they come up with oil.
“If we start losing parts of the ecosystem ... it will be devastating,” said Thomas Shirley, a marine biologist at Texas A&M University.
“I am much more inclined to believe fishermen about what they see in the Gulf and what they say about our waters,” he said, adding that one critical factor will be any losses to shrimp and crab populations in coming seasons.
BP, which is funding the spill cleanup, has pledged to pay all legitimate economic damage claims and this week made an initial $3 billion deposit into a $20 billion escrow fund established to cover income and livelihood losses.
Many fishermen say the government’s close cooperation with BP since the start of the spill in April means all official statements should be treated with caution, if not skepticism.
“We know these waters like the back of our hand. We all know what we see and things are not normal out there,” said Lynn Wazenski, a charter boat captain in Gulf Shores, Alabama.
Writing by Matt Bigg and Pascal Fletcher; editing by Mohammad Zargham