PASS CHRISTIAN, Mississippi (Reuters) - Fishermen and tourism businesses in the northeast Gulf of Mexico are dreading the nightmare possibility that a huge oil spill could wreck their livelihoods if it reaches shore.
The threat could not come at a worse time as the oyster season ends and shrimp season is set to begin.
For Joe Jenkins, owner of Crystal Seas Oysters, an oyster and shrimp processing factory in the picturesque Mississippi coastal town of Pass Christian, there is little option but to wait and hope disaster does not strike.
“It’s time for the little shrimp to start coming out so we can catch those guys,” Jenkins said. “An oil spill will kill all of those guys.”
Around 100 boats work out of Pass Christian, one of the busiest harbors on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
As the Coast Guard and oil company BP Plc struggle to contain the slick from a blown-out well off Louisiana, states to the east were deploying fire-retardant booms and other measures to protect their coastlines.
The slick, five times bigger than first thought, threatens the eastern shores of Louisiana and could also affect coastal waters in Mississippi, Alabama and northwest Florida.
The Southern Shrimp Alliance told the National Marine Fisheries Service in Washington this week it could help with prevention and clean-up.
“They are willing to pull booms if they have to,” said Deborah Long, a spokeswoman for the non-profit trade alliance. “The timing of this could be horrible.”
U.S. landings of shrimp were valued at $442 million in 2008, up 2 percent from the previous year, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.
But the industry has been hammered by cheap imports and falling international prices, Long said.
At this time of year, shrimp head out to sea from inland estuaries where they spawn. The industry fears a southerly wind could keep oil off the coast but push the shrimp into the slick, Long said.
The slick could also hit the tourism sector that is vital to Gulf Coast economies.
In Alabama, coastal residents and businesses were “frantic” about the possible impact if the slick was blown east, said George Crozier, director of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, a state marine research facility.
Tourists spent $2.3 billion on Alabama’s beaches in 2008, supporting 41,000 workers, according to the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau.
But Alabama’s beaches would be easier to clean than salt marshes and oyster reefs. Crozier said the state’s oyster fisheries are in “immediate jeopardy.”
“If they can’t stop it and we wind up dealing with a flow of oil for three months, that carries us into hurricane season and all bets are off because it becomes a very significant ecological problem,” he said.
The spill could also fracture a fragile relationship between Louisiana’s powerful energy lobby and environmental groups that say decades of exploration have hurt the coastline.
Coastal Louisiana sits on the Mississippi Delta and environmentalists say inland oil and gas exploration and the building of pipelines and canals have eroded wetlands.
That loss exacerbated the storm surge in Louisiana that devastated New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and an oil spill will do further harm, said Steven Peyronnin, executive director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana.
“We have a catastrophe on our hands right now. This is a moment to change policy, to really look at the risk we have undertaken here for a century and make changes,” he said.
“The state’s greatest challenge is to find a way to harmonize safe, effective (oil and gas) production to maintain the state’s engine and to recognize the natural system as important to the state as well.”
But restoring wetlands would cost big money. Estimates even before Katrina stood at $14 billion, Peyronnin said.
Additional reporting by Kelli Dugan in Alabama; Writing by Matthew Bigg; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and John O'Callaghan