With nearly half our domestic seafood dependent on what happens in the Gulf of Mexico, we cannot really take our eyes off the BP oil spill.

In last week’s letter, we were having a sort of Vulcan mind-meld with James Carville because it was so obvious we were not getting the truth on how much oil BP is spilling into the Gulf.

If the Gulf has a future producing seafood, it’s going to revolve around the dual issues of how much oil spilled and what happens to it.  On Thursday, the federal government finally officially dropped the BP-dictated estimate that 5,000 barrels of oil was spilling per day.

Now the official U.S. government estimates are for a spill of 12,000 to 25,000 barrels a day.    The Exxon Valdez spilled 250,000 barrels of oil into Prince William Sound.  Five weeks into the disaster, the BP oil spill totals 400,000 to 875,000 barrels.

So now that it is the worst oil spill in American history, where is all that oil going?

Scientists at the University of South Florida (USF) have been looking under the surface of the Gulf for answers.   What they’ve turned up is more than disturbing for the seafood industry.

At least two plumes of invisible oil, one thought to be six miles wide, are snaking under those waters in deep areas of the Gulf, USF experts say.  They’ve been compared to undersea “lava flows” that are far deeper than even the one-mile-down Deepwater Horizon well that blew up.

How much experience do we have with deep oil spills?  What damage will those deepwater plumes of dissolved oil along with the dispersant chemicals BP used do to life on the sea floor?  Could that be even more of a concern than the coastal ecosystems, including the 100 miles of Louisiana coast that are already soiled with BP’s product?

Many questions, but in the meantime the Gulf seafood industry was officially declared to be a disaster May 24 by Commerce Secretary Gary Locke.

“We are taking this action today because of the potentially significant economic hardship this spill may cause fishermen and the businesses and communities that depend on those fisheries,” Locke said. “The disaster determination will help ensure that the Federal government is in a position to mobilize the full range of assistance that fishermen and fishing communities may need.”

Locke made the determination under Section 312(a) of the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

We can only hope that one of BP’s many “hat tricks” finally shuts down the runaway well.  

If and when that happens, however we are reminded of that famous quote from Winston Churchill: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”