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Towns Scramble To Protect Gulf Coast From Oil Spill

Workers load a boat with oil booms in Bay St. Louis, Miss., as they continue preparations to head off damage from an impending oil spill along the Gulf Coast Friday. Dave Martin/AP hide caption

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Dave Martin/AP

Fishermen and oystermen in south Louisiana were preparing to thread miles of oil-absorbing boom through fragile marsh and wetlands Friday, as coastal communities in four states scrambled to protect shorebirds, marine life and sugar-white beaches from the massive oil spill headed for the Gulf Coast.

Rich with brown shrimp, oyster, crabs and fish, the Louisiana coast is one of the most fertile seafood grounds in the country. And even nonfishermen have a lot at stake. The state's $2.85 billion seafood industry puts one-third of the commercially harvested seafood in the U.S. on tables in the lower 48 states.

"We're going to use the people who know the water the best to help protect Plaquemines Parish," said Kurt Fromherz, a parish spokesman.

Preparing for the oil slick is very different from battening down the hatches when a hurricane is headed ashore, Fromherz said. Booms, the oil-absorbing barriers that are used to contain oil on the water’s surface, aren’t available at the local hardware store, he noted.

Initially, the government and British oil giant BP did not make the booms available because the site of landfall was a moving target — dependent on the tides, winds and weather. Officials said they waited until they had a better idea of where the spill was headed before they put all of the booms in place.

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Then, there was a false start Thursday, when parish officials were notified that all boatmen would have to take a four-hour training course if they were going to help lay boom. The training session was taking place on Friday afternoon, as local officials waited to see how much of the oil-absorbing barrier they would be given.

Fromherz said parish officials asked for 75 miles of boom to put around the spawning grounds of the region's famous brown shrimp, crabs and oyster beds, but on Friday morning he didn't know how much they would get.

"We're going to get them out on the water as soon as they finish the training," Fromherz said.

On Thursday, Gov. Bobby Jindal opened the shrimping season early to allow shrimpers to scoop up as much of their catch as they could before the oil slick fouls the waters.

With oil beginning to wash up on shore, BP and federal, state and local governments are engaged in a 24-hour battle to cap the leak, which began April 20 when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank. Since then, oil has spewed from the 5,000-foot-deep well at a rate of 200,000 gallons a day by some estimates.

By Friday morning, some response efforts were in place. More than 217,000 feet of the barrier had been laid, and another 305,760 feet was available.

BP spokesman John Curry said the industry-and-government team that's working on the spill is staging response efforts from five areas — Venice, La.; Biloxi and Pascagoula, Miss.; Theodore, Ala.; and Pensacola, Fla. Those areas were chosen with input from state and local officials, Curry said.

"From there, we will take the booms out to areas that have been identified as sensitive environmental areas, and we utilize the booms there first," Curry said.

In Florida, the Audubon Society was recruiting volunteers to help clean and rehabilitate birds whose feathers become laden with oil when they swoop onto the water looking for a meal. The group has opened its Center for Birds of Prey in Maitland as a rescue site.

"The terrible loss of 11 workers may be just the beginning of this tragedy as the oil slick spreads toward sensitive coastal areas vital to birds and marine life and to all the communities that depend on them," said Melanie Driscoll, a Louisiana-based Audubon bird conservation director.

Experts said birds are particularly vulnerable right now because they are breeding, nesting and migrating. Louisiana's brown pelican — the state bird — and beach-nesting terns and gulls are among the most vulnerable.

But David Ringer, Audubon spokesman in Vicksburg, Miss., said some of the mitigation techniques being considered may actually harm birds.

Burning oil, for example, may create toxins that would kill migrating birds. Making loud noises to frighten birds away from contaminated areas could drive mother birds away from their nests, though that technique could be effective in roosting and feeding grounds, he said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said 20 national wildlife refuges are within the current trajectory of the spill. Teams are conducting aerial surveillance to look for oiled wildlife. A toll-free number — 866-557-1401 — has been set up to report injured or oiled animals.

In Alabama, marine biologists and students were descending on Gulf Coast beaches to collect samples of water and marine life, said Bob Shipp, chairman of the marine sciences department at the University of South Alabama in Mobile. The samples will provide a valuable baseline to compare the effects of the oil on the area.

South Alabama marine sciences professor Sean Powers said the negative environmental and economic impact of the spill could exceed that of the Exxon Valdez and Hurricane Katrina.

"The Exxon Valdez was one accident. Here, we're talking about oil conceivably being washed up for three months" until the well is capped. "Snapper spawn in the Gulf of Mexico at this time of year. What's happening now could have an impact on the harvest levels for the next three or four years," Powers said.

He predicted that the general public would begin to see the effects in their seafood markets within two weeks, with the impact on the shrimp and oyster supply being the worst.

In Grand Isle, La., Josie Cheramie said her family's shrimping business was dealt a hard knock when Hurricane Katrina wiped them out in 2005.

Now, she's hoping this man-made catastrophe isn't a death blow.

"This is huge. We just got a new beach, a new levee," she said, adding that the fouling of the shrimping waters would bring a different kind of hardship.