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NOAA Opens Waters Off Florida to Fin Fishing

Opening of some federal waters off the politically touchy coast of the Florida panhandle to fin fishing earlier this week underscores just how much control the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s Marine Fisheries Services continues to exercise over the oil-soaked Gulf seafood industry.

Although the BP oil spill at the Deepwater Horizon well site is said to be over, more than 200 million gallons of brown crude oil was dumped into Gulf waters from a point one mile below sea level, and the various federal agencies involved in the spill investigation have lost track of where about 90 million gallons went.

NOAA says oil has not been observed in the 5,144 square mile area off the Florida coast opened to fin fishing Tuesday since July 3.   Risk of future exposure of the Florida waters to oil is low, according to NOAA.

Sensory testing by NOAA and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of 153 samples of grouper, snapper, tuna, and mahi mahi found “no detectable oil or dispersant odors or flavors in the samples and results of chemical analysis were well below levels of concern.”

Finfish tests included species caught for both recreational and commercial purposes. Samples were taken both inside and outside the closure area at dockside and fish markets.

The area remains closed to non-finfish species, such as shrimp.  Opening the area brought praise from Gov. Charlie Crist, who is running in Florida this year for the U.S. Senate as an independent.  Gov. Crist said NOAA’s opening of the area was a “much needed boost to the economy and our way of life.”

The area west of Pensacola, FL over to Louisiana remains totally closed.   That area includes 52,395 square miles–roughly the same size as the entire State of Alabama.  It represents about 22 percent of the U.S. “exclusive economic zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.

NOAA says all commercial and recreational fishing including catch and release is prohibited in this closed area. Boats and ships may transit through the closed area.

NOAA is continuing to evaluate the need for fisheries closures in federal waters.  Florida and Mississippi opened state waters last week, actions that brought a quick blessing from FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg.

Hamburg said FDA was “confident all appropriate steps have been taken to ensure that seafood harvested” from the newly opened state waters are “safe and that Gulf seafood lovers everywhere can be confident eating and enjoying the fish and shrimp.”

During the peak of the closures, about 35 percent of the federal waters of the Gulf and most state waters in the five state area were closed to all commercial and recreational harvesting.

Among the issues that continue to concern the Gulf seafood community in the aftermath of the spill are:

-Orange specs found in the larvae of Blue Crab, raising concern that unless oil is digested and passed in the keystone species, the contamination will move “up the food chain.”

-Damage that may result from the unprecedented use of at least 1.8 million gallons of the chemical dispersants used by BP to help make the oil go away.  BP used–with EPA permission–two varieties of a chemical called Corexit.   One congressman has called the impact that may have on the Gulf environment “a grand experiment.”

-Dead areas, including oyster beds that have already been found so damaged there is going to be nothing left to harvest.

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