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Gulf spill: Tar balls spark partial shrimping ban

An area off the Gulf Coast hit hard by the BP oil spill was closed Wednesday to fishing for a deepwater shrimp species after a skipper hauled up tar balls in his net, regulators said.
/ Source: news services

An area off the Gulf Coast hit hard by the BP oil spill was closed Wednesday to fishing for a deepwater shrimp species after a skipper hauled up tar balls in his net, federal regulators said.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said it was closing 4,213 square miles to royal red shrimping "out of an abundance of caution." Royal red shrimp are caught by only a handful of fishermen and they are not one of the main species found on tables across the Gulf Coast. The closed area is one of only a handful of spots where fishermen catch royal red shrimp.

The closed area is off the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama and lies just north of the BP PLC well that leaked more than 170 million gallons of oil into the Gulf. The leak was set off by an April 20 oil rig explosion that killed 11 workers.

An Alabama skipper reported finding about a half-dozen tar balls in his net Nov. 20, said Karrie Carnes, a NOAA spokeswoman. It took several days to confirm the findings and issue an emergency closure, she said. During that period, she said royal red shrimp fishermen were told about the pending closure and officials made sure no royal red made it to market.

NOAA said the Coast Guard was analyzing the tar balls to determine if they came from oil spilled after the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion.

John Stein, the director of NOAA's seafood safety program, said inspectors at a Pascagoula, Miss., laboratory, where Gulf seafood has been tested since the spill, found no evidence of oil on the shrimp the Alabama fisherman hauled in with the tar balls.

"There was no odor of oil on the shrimp," Stein said.

It was the first closure of a fishery in the Gulf since July 12, Carnes said. NOAA has since gradually reopened most of the area that was closed to commercial and recreational fishing in the wake of the BP spill that saw almost 5 million barrels of oil surge into the sea.

NOAA said that at its peak in early June, more than 88,000 square miles of Gulf waters had been closed to fishing. The only area still closed to fishing due to the spill is a 1,041 square mile patch immediately around the BP well site.

Royal red shrimp live in deeper waters and about 250 fishermen are licensed to catch them in the Gulf, but NOAA said only a handful of fishermen are working at the moment. Those type of shrimp are caught by dragging nets across the bottom of the seafloor. NOAA said fishing is still allowed in shallower waters in the closed area.

'What did they expect?' George Barisich, the head of the United Commercial Fisherman's Association in Louisiana, said he was not surprised by the discovery of tar balls. Barisich does not catch red royal shrimp.

"What did they expect? It all went away?" Barisich said, deriding federal and state officials for repeatedly saying the oil was gone as they reopened the vast majority of the Gulf in recent weeks.

"The more people who go to work, the more we'll find," Barisich said. "The reason we're not finding (the oil) is because" so few fishermen are working.

Roy Crabtree, a NOAA official who oversees fisheries in the Gulf, said there have been no other reports of tar balls.

"We are taking this situation seriously," Crabtree said. "This fishery is the only trawl fishery that operates at the deep depths where the tar balls were found and we have not received reports of any other gear or fishery interactions with tar balls.

"Our primary concerns are public safety and ensuring the integrity of the Gulf's seafood supply."

Stein said NOAA would send boats to the closed area next week to do sampling. He said the area would be reopened to royal red shrimping only once it was deemed safe.