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.
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.
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.
A boat uses a boom and absorbent material to soak up oil in Cat Bay, near Grand Isle, La., on June 28. A tropical storm is expected to hit the Gulf and impede cleanup efforts.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and wife Carole Rome Crist (right) stand with others during a Hands Across the Sand event June 26 in Pensacola, Fla. The event was staged across the nation to protest offshore oil drilling.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Oil clouds the surface of Barataria Bay near Port Sulpher, La., on June 19.
Sean Gardner/Getty Images
Workers adjust piping while drilling a relief well at the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
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A dolphin rises up out of the water near Grand Terre Island off the coast of Louisiana on June 14.
Derick E. Hingle/AP
President Obama stands with Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (right) and Gulfport, Miss., Mayor George Schloegel after meeting with residents affected by the oil spill.
Crude oil washes ashore in Orange Beach, Ala., on June 12. Oil slicks, 4 to 6 inches thick in some parts, have washed up along the Alabama coast.
A volunteer uses a toothbrush to clean an oil-covered white pelican at the Fort Jackson Oiled Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Buras, La., June 9.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
A shrimp boat skims oil from the surface of the water just off Orange Beach, Ala., as a family enjoys the surf. Oily tar balls have started washing up on Orange Beach and beaches in the western Florida panhandle.
Sand from a dredge is pumped onto East Grand Terre Island, La., to provide a barrier against the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, June 8.
A dead turtle floats on a pool of oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill in Barataria Bay off the coast of Louisiana on June 7.
Workers use absorbent pads to remove oil that has washed ashore from the spill in Grand Isle, La., June 6.
Plaquemines Parish coastal zone director P.J. Hahn lifts an oil-covered pelican out of the water on Queen Bess Island in Plaquemines Parish, La., June 5.
Heavy oil pools along the side of a boom just outside Cat Island in Grand Isle, La., June 6.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
President Obama walks alongside Grand Isle Mayor David Camardelle (from right), U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who is in charge of the federal response to the spill, and Chris Camardelle after meeting with local business owners in Grand Isle, La., June 4.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
A brown pelican sits on the beach at East Grand Terre Island along the Louisiana coast after being drenched in oil from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, June 3.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announces that the Justice Department has launched a criminal investigation into the BP oil spill. With him, from left: Stephanie Finley and Jim Letten, U.S. attorneys for the Western District of Louisiana; Ignacia Moreno, assistant attorney general for the Environment and Natural Resources Division; Tony West, assistant attorney general, Civil Division; and Don Burkhalter, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi.
The oil slick off the coast of Louisiana, seen from above.
NASA via Getty Images
A worker leaves the beach in Grand Isle, La., on May 30. BP is turning to yet another mix of undersea robot maneuvers to help keep more crude oil from flowing into the Gulf.
Jae C. Hong/AP
Protesters cover themselves with a water and paint mixture during a demonstration at a BP gas station in New York City on May 28.
Workers clean up oil in Pass a Loutre, La. The latest attempt to plug the leak was unsuccessful.
Jae C. Hong, File/AP
Residents listen to a discussion with parish officials and a BP representative on May 25 in Chalmette, La. Officials now say that it may be impossible to clean the hundreds of miles of coastal wetlands affected by the massive oil spill.
Sean Gardner/Getty Images
An oil-soaked pelican takes flight after Louisiana Fish and Wildlife employees tried to corral it on an island in Barataria Bay on the coast of Louisiana. The island, which is home to hundreds of brown pelican nests as well at terns, gulls and roseate spoonbills, is impacted by oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill.
A sign warns the public to stay away from the beach on Grand Isle, La. Officials closed the oil-covered beaches to the public indefinitely on Saturday.
John Moore/Getty Images
Pelican eggs stained with oil sit in a nest on an island in Barataria Bay on May 22.
A bird flies over oil that has collected on wetlands on Elmer's Island in Grand Isle, La., May 20. The oil came inland despite oil booms that were placed at the wetlands' mouth on the Gulf of Mexico.
Members of the Louisiana National Guard build a land bridge at the mouth of wetlands on Elmer's Island.
The hands of boat captain Preston Morris are covered in oil after collecting surface samples from the marsh of Pass a Loutre, La., on May 19.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (center) and Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser (right) tour the oil-impacted marsh of Pass a Loutre, La. "This is the heavy oil that everyone's been fearing that is here now," said Jindal.
BP Chairman and President Lamar McKay (left), with Transocean President and CEO Steven Newman (center) and Applied Science Associates Principal Deborah French McCay, testifies during a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing May 18 on response efforts to the Gulf Coast oil spill.
Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
This undated frame grab image received from BP and provided by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee shows details of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. BP has agreed to display a live video feed of the oil gusher on the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming Committee's website beginning Thursday evening.
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee/AP
President Obama speaks with local fishermen about how they are affected by the oil spill in Venice, La., on May 2.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Danene Birtell with Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research tends to a Northern Gannet in Fort Jackson, La., on April 30. The bird, normally white when full grown, is covered in oil from the oil spill.
Since the explosion, a third oil leak has been discovered in the blown-out well.
In this aerial photo taken April 21 more than 50 miles southeast of Venice, La., the Deepwater Horizon oil rig burns.
Tendrils of oil mar the waters of the Gulf of Mexico in this satellite image taken Monday. An estimated 5,000 barrels of oil a day are seeping into the Gulf, after an explosion last week on a drilling rig about 50 miles off the Louisiana coast.
Courtesy of Digital Globe
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"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.