HOUSTON (Reuters) - U.S. officials closed commercial and recreational fishing in a large swathe of waters hit by the growing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said on Sunday.
The affected waters, which span the coastlines of four states, are largely between the mouth of the Mississippi River in Louisiana and Florida’s Pensacola Bay, the NOAA said.
The ban took immediate effect and is in place for at least 10 days.
The U.S. Gulf coast is a rich breeding ground for fish, crabs, oysters and shrimp and accounts for about 20 percent of the nation’s total commercial seafood production. The shrimp and oyster supply, in particular, is heavily concentrated in the Gulf.
“Balancing economic and health concerns, this order closes just those areas that are affected by oil,” NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, said in a statement. “There should be no health risk in seafood currently in the marketplace.”
Officials are working to prohibit harvesting from affected areas and to keep oiled seafood off the market.
Seafood marketing groups backed the plan as a way to ensure the quality of their product was not called into question.
“We support NOAA’s precautionary closure of the affected area so that the American consumer has confidence that the seafood they eat is safe,” Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Board, said in a statement.
The portion of the waters currently closed to fishing represents about 77 percent of Louisiana seafood production, Smith said.
Disruptions as a result of the spill could cost the fishing industry in Louisiana alone as much as $2.5 billion, said financial research firm Bernstein.
Lubchenco met with more than 100 fishermen in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, on Friday, to hear their concerns about the economic impact of a closure.
NOAA officials are evaluating the need to declare a fisheries disaster, as the states of Louisiana and Mississippi have requested, to facilitate federal aid to fishermen.
In 2008, commercial fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico harvested more than one billion pounds of fish and shellfish out of the total 8.3 billion pounds, according to government statistics.
The massive and uncontrolled oil spill was caused by the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig after an explosion April 20 that killed 11 workers.
For a map of the emergency rule closure boundary, click the following link: here
Reporting by Anna Driver and Ros Krasny in Houston, editing by Martin Golan and Chris Wilson