Fishermen are breathing a bit easier this weekend as the National Marine Fisheries Service on Friday reopened for fishing nearly 13,000 square miles of the Gulf of Mexico west of the Dry Tortugas.
The feds had banned fishing there, including portions of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, on Wednesday after projecting an oil sheen from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill would move into that area within the next several days.
The agency on Friday essentially moved the fishing ban boundary 100 miles west throughout the Gulf. The ban had been 20 miles from the Dry Tortugas park boundary. The move reopened an additional 3,000 square miles elsewhere in the Gulf.
"This is extremely good news," said Capt. Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association. "We hope that Mother Nature continues to watch out for us. ... My telephone was ringing off the hook yesterday. These guys [fishermen] were scared, and understandably so. There were all kinds of rumors running around about the feds shutting down fishing in the Florida Straits. I think people realized how quickly the economy of the Florida Keys could be shut down."
Kelly said he has urged federal fishery managers for more stringent water-sampling and fish-testing before they close off areas to fishing.
Several members of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Committee have contacted sanctuary Superintendent Sean Morton asking what criteria is used to ban fishing, he wrote to members on Friday. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is the parent organization over both the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
The criteria is based on computer models that produce trajectory maps of where the oil is likely to be in 24, 48 and 72 hours, based on weather, satellite imagery, ocean buoy data and ocean currents, Morton said. The trajectory is "truth-tested" by daily flights over the Gulf.
The feds review the data daily and by noon determine whether a fishing ban is needed and where, Morton said.
They will continue to monitor the trajectory of the oil spill, sheens and tar balls, and close and open areas as needed, said Roy Crabtree, southeast regional director of the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Crabtree, who oversees fishing rules throughout the Gulf, said he understands the need to ensure areas free of oil remain open to fishing, as fishermen are being hit by more regulations than ever before.
"It's been a tough year for fishermen," Crabtree said. "We are taking this day by day."
Also on Friday, the U.S. Department of Commerce issued a Fishery Failure Determination for Florida, which opens the door for the state's fishermen to receive federal funding because of lost wages. Gov. Charlie Crist requested the determination on Thursday.
"The quick response of the federal government to this request is a positive step toward protecting Florida's hardworking citizens," Crist said in a prepared statement Friday. "We are continuing to keep a close watch on the oil spill and are prepared to respond to any impacts we may experience. Florida is still open and we encourage everyone to go fishing and enjoy Florida seafood products."
Commerce Secretary Garcy Locke granted Crist's request to establish a regional economic transition program, which allows fishermen and other businesses to qualify for economic injury loans through the U.S. Small Business Administration.