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Fishing suspended in S.F. Bay due to spill

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Tuesday suspended all fishing in areas affected by last week's oil spill in San Francisco Bay, the area's worst in nearly two decades.
Bay Spill
Many San Francisco beaches like this one remained closed Tuesday due to the container ship oil spill last Wednesday.Paul Sakuma / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Tuesday suspended all fishing in areas affected by last week's oil spill in San Francisco Bay, as an environmental group lobbied to ban the type of fuel spilled in the area's worst in nearly two decades.

Fishermen concerned about the 58,000-gallon spill had requested the suspension, which delays Thursday's scheduled start of the highly anticipated commercial season for Dungeness crab and interrupts the catch for sportfishermen.

"Our priority must be getting the oil cleaned up as quickly as possible, rescuing all marine life and most importantly protecting the public health," Schwarzenegger said in a news release announcing the executive order.

Schwarzenegger also ordered the state Department of Public Health to determine whether people can become sick if they eat seafood caught in areas impacted by the shipping fuel spilled by the cargo ship Cosco Busan.

The ship struck one of four supports beneath the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge's western section last week, opening a 90-foot gash in its hull. The bridge suffered no structural damage, but the spill fouled miles of coastline and killed dozens of shorebirds.

Schwarzenegger signed an executive order that will suspend commercial and sport fishing until Dec. 1, or until state health officials decide it's safe. Governor's spokesman Jeff Macedo said the state Department of Fish and Game will determine which fishing areas will be affected by the order.

Commercial crab fishermen voted to ask for the delay Saturday. They are worried the crabs could be contaminated because ocean and bay water is used to keep the crustaceans alive in fishing boats after they're harvested from the sea floor.

Ban on bunker fuel urged
The type of oil that spilled — so-called bunker fuel, that is sticky, packed with pollutants and slow to break down — is an ecological nightmare for the water, say environmentalists.

The spill inspired the group Friends of the Earth to ask Congress to ban the use of bunker fuel.

"Bunker fuel is the dirtiest fuel on the planet," said Teri Shore, campaign director for the marine program at Friends of the Earth, which has started a petition drive seeking a ban.

Bunker fuel is a byproduct of oil refining, a process that separates lighter, cleaner, more commercially valuable liquids like gasoline and kerosene.

Its main advantage to the shipping industry is that it's cheap — a cost-effective option for massive ship engines can burn fuels other engines can't use.

But if bunker fuel spills, it gums up beaches, marshes and other ecosystems. Animals mistake it for food or ingest it as they try to clean their coats, and the oil breaks through the waterproof fur or feathers that keep them dry, exposing them to hypothermia, said Gary Shigenaka, with the emergency response division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Pilot's perspective
The harbor pilot under investigation in San Francisco Bay’s biggest oil spill in two decades initially believed the damage to his ship was minor, radioing that the vessel had just “touched” the Bay Bridge, his lawyer said Monday.

In fact, Wednesday’s collision ripped a gash in the fuel tank of the Hong Kong-based Cosco Busan, unleashing 58,000 gallons of thick, toxic fuel oil that was still being cleaned up.

Captain John Cota “has told me you could hardly feel anything on the ship and he must have assumed from that that there wasn’t much damage,” attorney John Meadows said. “The ship didn’t roll. There wasn’t a loud sound.”

Cota quickly radioed authorities over an open radio network to report the ship had “touched” the bridge, according to an official with knowledge of the investigation.

“Traffic, we just touched the delta span,” Cota said, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing criminal probe. Cota was referring to one of four supports beneath the bridge’s western section.

The spill, initially reported at just 140 gallons, ended up being hundreds of times worse. The collision caused no structural damage to the bridge, but the fuel has fouled miles of coast, closed nearly two dozen beaches and piers, and killed dozens of seabirds.

Ship detained, crew questioned
The Cosco Busan is being detained at the Port of Oakland. Crew members were questioned on board the vessel beginning Sunday, said Coast Guard attorney Christopher Tribolet.

Any charges — civil or criminal — would likely fall under the negligence provisions of the Clean Water Act and the U.S. transportation code, Tribolet said.

The Coast Guard notified the U.S. attorney’s office Saturday about problems involving coordination between the officers on the ship’s bridge at the time of the crash.

Capt. William Uberti, the Coast Guard commander for the bay region, declined to elaborate, except to say: “It was just the way that everybody interacted” on the bridge.

Coast Guard officials declined to comment Monday on Cota’s radio transmission and how it relates to the investigation. Scott Schools, the acting U.S. attorney for Northern California, confirmed that his office was asked to investigate.

The bridge personnel included the helmsman, watch officer and ship’s master, as well as Cota, who is among the most experienced of the seamen who guide ships through the bay’s treacherous water.

All 26 crew members remained on board Monday, said Henry de La Garza, a spokesman for Regal Stone Ltd., the Hong Kong-based company that owns the Cosco Busan.

On Monday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and several members of the Bay Area’s congressional delegation joined Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen and Rear Adm. Craig Bone along the bay.

Pelosi questioned Bone about the Coast Guard response, specifically the time lapse in releasing the full extent of the spill to the public. Agency officials learned the true extent of the spill several hours before local officials and the public were notified.

“We have very, very serious concerns about how this transpired and the timing,” Pelosi said. “There are many questions that have been raised.”

Earlier, Allen defended his agency’s response to the spill while pledging a full investigation.

“On the surface it would appear that we did everything by the book in this case as far as responding,” Allen said while en route from Washington, D.C., to survey the damage.

“However, having done this work for over 36 years, nothing is as it seems at the start,” he said. “We need to recover all the information, make sure all the facts are established.”

Damage, visibility were factors
Allen said it may have taken time to figure out the extent of the spill partly because gear used to measure how much fuel is in the oil tank was damaged by the crash. He also noted the poor visibility at the time — a quarter-mile to an eighth-mile in fog.

“You don’t turn 900-foot vessels on a dime,” he said. “And given the visibility at the time I think it would be difficult to assess whether or not the bridge itself was visible.”

More than 12,000 gallons of the oil had been recovered by Monday, but much of it never will be, the Coast Guard said. Some will evaporate or dissipate and be absorbed into the environment.

While nowhere near as large as the 11 million gallons spilled in the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, Wednesday’s spill was the biggest in the area since 1988, when 400,000 gallons of oil spilled after a Shell refinery drain line broke. Another spill in 1996 poured 40,000 gallons of oil into the bay from a military vessel near Pier 70.