Mired in an oily, black limbo


Gulf Coast businesses can only wait and watch as crews struggle to cap the flow and limit the toll


After 25 years of guiding anglers from three houseboats moored off Louisiana's pristine Chandeleur Islands, Capt. Mark Stebly is dead in the water.

"Fishing there has been shut down for a week already," says the 50-year-old guide, who spoke with Soundings Trade Only in early May. "I take people out to the Chandeleur Islands. That's all I do. I'm totally out of business now."

The Chandeleurs and Breton Sound, a wildlife refuge, are on the north edge of the spill and inside a zone where fishing has been banned.

As oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill continued to gush into the Gulf of Mexico at a rate of about 200,000 gallons a day, boating and fishing businesses in coastal Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida were seeing the fallout. "I've cancelled seven trips already," says Stebly, who takes clients out on skiffs to fish for speckled trout, flounder and redfish. He carries six to 10 of them out to the houseboats for a three-day, three-night outing at $950 per person. "I see no hope in sight right now unless they get that oil stopped."

Some southeastern Louisiana boat dealerships also were reporting that the spill has thrown a pall on business at a time when they were starting to see signs of life in the market after one of the worst recessions in history. "We were just starting to get heavy into the [spring /summer] season," says Todd Knaak, president of Cypress Cove Boating Center and Marina. Knaak's main salesroom is in Slidell, near Lake Pontchartrain, his marina and resort in Venice, closer to the stricken well than he'd like. At Slidell, new-boat inquiries had dropped from 15 to 25 to maybe five to 10 in the morning, and from 10 to 20 to one or two in the afternoon.


"Everybody's just waiting to see," says Knaak, a dealer in inshore and offshore fishing boats. "No one seems to be in a big hurry to get a boat for springtime because they're worried that the fishing will be shut down."

If there is a bright side, he says his Venice facility was doing a booming business in fuel sales and lodging to news crews, cleanup parties, boom boats, government biologists, and even President Obama's security entourage. Knaak's marina was the one the president visited on his tour of the spill.

Knaak says some charter skippers have been making hay as well, charging news teams $400 an hour to go out and film the slick. "Some of them are making as much as if they were fishing," he says, but they were the exception.


Capt. Michael Ellis, of the Venice-based Relentless, a 33-foot Freeman sportfisherman, says he'd lost 15 charters, some of them into August, even though most of his charters are 20 miles offshore, well away from the spill and the no-fishing zone. "I ran a charter the other day and hooked into 18 yellowfin tuna," he says. Other captains have reported similar catches. "There are plenty of places to fish - plenty of tuna, no oil," he says, but clients are reluctant to come until the crisis is over.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had closed all fishing off Louisiana east of the Mississippi River and in federal waters off Mississippi. (Inshore fishing still was permitted there.) Charter Capt. Tom Becker, of Biloxi, Miss., says his 40-foot sportfisherman The Skipper still could fish the inshore waters off Mississippi for redfish, speckled trout and flounder, but like other captains he reported trip cancellations - $9,600 worth.

At last report, the first attempt to drop a four-story, 98-ton dome over the main leak to capture the oil and pump it to barges at the surface had failed. The depth of the water - nearly a mile - and the cold temperatures at the wellhead caused ice-like crystals to form in the pumpout pipe and clogged it. BP still was trying to make the dome work, but if it doesn't, the company might have to rely on a new relief well it's drilling as a last resort to stanch the oil. That could take 90 days.


"It absolutely blows my mind that they can't shut it off," says Stebly. "It breaks my heart that it just keeps pumping."

Stebly worried that the spawning speckled trout, the nesting brown pelicans and sea turtles, the oyster beds and shrimp habitat, and the sea grasses, mangroves, marshes and estuaries where young fish thrive all are in harm's way. He says these coastal habitats - the sea grasses, in particular - were just starting to come back after Hurricane Katrina.

All around the Gulf, boat dealers, marina dockmasters, commercial fishermen and recreational anglers were checking online maps daily to see where the estimated 3 million gallons of oil might wash ashore. "It's kind of tough right now," says Joni Johnson, sales and leasing director and assistant marina manager at Legendary Marine in Destin, Fla. "There's still so much uncertainty about how much this is going to affect us."


First it seemed the toxic blanket of oil would wash ashore east of Venice on the shores of eastern Louisiana, Alabama and northwest Florida. Then a southeast wind began pushing it west from Venice toward the Mississippi River and some of Louisiana's prime commercial shrimping grounds. On top of that, oceanographers were forecasting the Gulf loop current might scoop up part of the oil and whisk it south down Florida's coast to the Keys and into the Gulf Stream, whose conveyor-belt current could carry it to Cape Hatteras, N.C., and beyond.

"The loop current is getting awfully close to the oil," says University of South Florida oceanographer Robert Weisberg, who has been tracking both (see  http://ocgweb.marine.usf.edu/). One filament of the loop current "is probably only tens of kilometers from the southeasternmost part of the oil spill," he says. "The loop current is moving north, and that filament is moving north with it."

Brian Dekkinga, 50, sales manager at Galati Yacht Sales in Destin, Fla., says the spill has had a psychological impact on boat buyers, but he is trying to counter that with a positive spin. "I'm sitting here at my second-floor window looking at emerald-green seas and sun and boats going out," he says. The bad news is BP hasn't stopped the leak, he says. The good news: There's no oil off Destin.


Back in Morgan City, the capital of Louisiana's oil industry, Marvin Catrett, owner of Evolution Marine - the state's biggest Mercury dealer - says that whether the spill blows east or west, inshore or offshore, he'll make out OK. He sells boats and engines to oil-related businesses, to rig roustabouts who get paid very well by the oil companies, and to recreational anglers who own or work for businesses that do well when the oil industry does well.

"Our economy here in Terrebonne and Lafourche [parishes] has [one of the] lowest unemployment rates in the United States - 4.6 percent," he says. "Why? Because the price of gasoline just went up a little bit."


Despite the spill, he says, oil still is king on the Louisiana coast.

This article originally appeared in the June 2010 issue.


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