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updated 5/18/2010 3:29:11 PM ET 2010-05-18T19:29:11

Federal officials say they're expanding the area of the Gulf of Mexico where fishing is shut down because of the massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

They had already shut down fishing from the Mississippi River to the Florida Panhandle soon after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank last month. Nearly 10 percent of federal waters were affected initially.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced Tuesday that it's expanding the closed area to nearly 46,000 square miles, or about 19 percent of federal waters.

NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco said the move was made in response to oil shifting southeast. That oil could enter the Loop Current, which would then carry it to the Florida Keys and even possibly up the Atlantic Coast.

University of South Florida researchers said Tuesday the Loop Current could pull the southern arm of the massive spill into the Florida Keys on Sunday.

But Lubchenco said that while aerial surveys show some tendrils of light oil close to or already in the Loop Current, most oil is dozens of miles away from the current.

Lubchenco added that it would take about eight to 10 days after oil enters the current before it begins to reach Florida.

Twenty tar balls were found by the Coast Guard off Key West, Fla., on Monday. They are being tested to see if they came from the Louisiana spill or elsewhere. Tar balls can occur naturally or come from other sources such as ships.

Key West, the southernmost tip of the popular Straits of Florida island chain, is a famous beach, diving and fishing resort which counted writer Ernest Hemingway among its fans.

Although people living there are used to hurricanes hammering their shores, the oil slick was a different kind of threat.

"The county hasn't called for an evacuation of tourists as they often do during a hurricane, but if the oil spill affects our waters there won't be any visitors to evacuate. No one knows where the tar balls are from, but they predict doom and gloom," said resident Charlie Bauer.

Officials say the oil spill has so far had only a small pollution impact on the shoreline and wildlife along the Gulf Coast, but oil debris and tar balls have been reported in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi. Miles of protective booms are being used to try to defend the shore.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: An oil loop?

  1. Closed captioning of: An oil loop?

    >> thank you very much.

    >>> now to the source of the oil spill and bp 's defense of its handling of that disaster. for more on that, nbc's mark potter is in venice, louisiana . mark, good morning. let me start with you and ask you what are you seeing and what are people there seeing washing ashore in the gulf coast ?

    >> reporter: well, they're seeing oil. here in louisiana , matt -- good morning to you -- governor bobby jindal says there are 46 miles of shorelines here that have now been oiled -- excuse me -- 19 of them do have tar balls. lot of bugs out here this morning. yesterday an nbc team out here found red gooey tar patches in a marsh area and on a beach, in an area in the southeastern most of louisiana . bp says it is now working on a fix to completely seal that well. perhaps by the end of the week. they'll first use a technique known as a top kill where tons of highly pressurized mud are shoved down in the well and encased in cement. if that doesn't work, they'll try something called a jump shot trying to jam rubber, plastic, copper, even golf balls into that blow-out preventer on the top of the well to jam it up, and encasing that in cement. bp says now it is collecting a fifth of the oil by connecting the oil in a tube to a ship. in washington yesterday at another scene, the senate committee chairman joe lieberman criticized bp for not being prepared for the spill, and also the u.s. government for issuing drilling permits without requiring the property safety measures.

    >> mark potter in louisiana for us this morning, taking one for the team swallowing a bug for breakfast there. mark, way to go. thanks very


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