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Date of Issue: June 09, 2010

Feds expand closed fishing area

As of June 2, the federal government had closed about 88,500 square miles of the Gulf of Mexico because of the oil gushing from a leaking deepwater well. About 37 percent of the federal waters in the Gulf were closed. Islander Image: NOAA

The federal government expanded the closed fishing grounds in the Gulf of Mexico last week to about 37 percent of federal waters.

The closed area, described by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as precautionary, represents about 88,502 square miles. On a map, the area looks as large as the state of Florida. The most significant expansion was to the area of southwest Florida just west of the Dry Tortugas.

All commercial and recreational fishing, including catch and release, is prohibited in the closed area, but transit through the area is allowed.

The expansion was a factor in Florida Gov. Charlie Crist’s June 2 decision to ask the U.S. Commerce Department to declare the “commercial fishery failure” in the state, which came through June 4.

Commercial fishers, including those in Cortez, have expressed concerns about their ability to continue to earn a living in the Gulf. Charter boat captains, meanwhile, have reported loss of income and concerns about their earnings in the future.

“As more of the Gulf of Mexico’s federal waters are closed to fishing and the spill continues unabated, there are now two immediate and devastating impacts to our fishing industries and the men and women who work so hard at their livelihoods,” Crist wrote in a letter to Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, who declared a fishery failure late June 2.

First, said the governor, the expanded closure, along with the movement of oil to Florida’s Panhandle, has resulted in “lost fishing opportunities.

The closed area includes a significant portion of commercial fishing grounds for snapper and grouper.

“This action alone will have a severe and immediate economic impact on Florida’s commercial grouper fleet,” Crist wrote.

Also, the governor said there is a misconception that the entire Gulf of Mexico is tainted by the spill, which has fueled concerns about the safety of seafood.

NOAA and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, along with agencies in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi are testing seafood quality on the Gulf and dockside, but consumer concerns remain.

Fishers are “struggling to stay afloat even though fishing is still open in Florida and seafood is still being harvested,” said Rodney Barreto, who chairs the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.