Florida Fishing Town On Edge Over Gulf Oil Spill No oil has yet been found on any Florida beaches. But the huge spill in the Gulf of Mexico is taking a toll on tourism and the seafood business. Concerns are rising in Apalachicola, a fishing town on Florida's Panhandle, just as the summer vacation season begins.

Florida Fishing Town On Edge Over Gulf Oil Spill

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Florida is beginning a $25 million ad campaign. It's a campaign funded by BP, and it has a single message.

(Soundbite of an ad campaign)

Unidentified Woman: The weather is beautiful. The beaches are clear, and the fish are biting. The Sunshine State is open for business.

MONTAGNE: No oil from the Gulf of Mexico spill has yet been found on any Florida beaches. Still, it's beginning to take a toll on communities that make their living from the gulf.

NPR's Greg Allen has this report about the raw nerves and uncertainty in one Florida fishing community.

(Soundbite of seagulls)

GREG ALLEN: Ninety percent of Florida's oysters are harvested here in Apalachicola Bay. It's a nearly pristine estuary on the Florida Panhandle. State and federal officials say they don't think the oil will hit the area. But, hedging their bets, authorities agreed to open oyster season 11 days early.

At an oyster processing plant, oysterman Tony Millender talked while he unloaded burlap sacks of oysters he'd caught that morning. Millender said he wasn't in favor of the early start.

Mr. TONY MILLENDER (Oysterman): I wasnt because it takes 10 days off the end of the season. They opened it up 10 days early; the oil is not here - I think they jumped the gun on that.

ALLEN: Right. I guess what it comes down to, people worry that the oil could get here.

Mr. MILLENDER: Yeah. Yeah. Thats the worry.

ALLEN: You think it's - any chance?

Mr. MILLENDER: Mother Nature can do weird things.

ALLEN: Everyone knows here that a shift in the winds or a hurricane could immediately change the picture and bring the oil slick to Apalachicola. But in the meantime, the oystering is good.

ALLEN: In the shucking room at David Barber's seafood facility, 20 men and women are in constant motion, opening oysters that will be shipped in gallons and pint containers to restaurants and retail markets. Usually this time of year, Barber says he buys oysters from Louisiana for processing. Because of the spill, almost all of those oyster beds are closed. Barber says about the only gulf oysters available now are coming out of Apalachicola Bay.

Mr. DAVID BARBER (Owner, Barber Seafood): And so it's boosted our sales some. But you know, Apalachicola Bay is not a large area for oysters, and it won't sustain a lot of harvesting going on for very long, you know. The oyster beds just aren't big enough.

ALLEN: Nearly everyone here makes their living from the water, either by tourism or fishing. The head of the county commission, Joe Parrish, also manages Buddy Ward and Son's, a shrimp-processing facility that freezes and ships shrimp around the country.

Parrish was at an emergency meeting recently where fishermen, businessmen and county officials called on BP and the state to have boom on hand in Apalachicola, so it could be deployed quickly at the first signs of oil. Parrish says BP and the state said it's not possible.

Mr. JOE PARRISH (Manager, Buddy Ward and Son's Seafood): Basically, there's not enough boom to go around. We had some boom they were supposed to stage here. But as the oil come ashore in Louisiana, they saw the need for more boom out there to try to protect where the oil is actually coming to shore. So basically, they took from here and took it to Louisiana.

ALLEN: Thats left many fishermen and businesses here feeling vulnerable.

Mr. STEVEN RASH (Owner, Water Street Seafood): I would give odds that we're going to see some form of oil here, sometime in the near future.

ALLEN: Steven Rash owns Water Street Seafood, a company that buys oysters, shrimp and fish from all over the gulf. He says after the blowout in 1979 in Mexico's Bay of Campeche, tar balls washed up on panhandle beaches months afterward. He joined with other businesses in the area to file a lawsuit against BP. It seeks class-action status to compensate businesses for losses related to the spill.

Mr. RASH: We have customers that are telling us now they don't want to buy snappers out of the gulf now, cause they're concerned that they could be contaminated. Our boats can't fish in these areas. We're losing product. It's going to take a good while to figure out exactly what in the world is going to be the consequences of this.

ALLEN: Florida's biggest problem with the spill now is one of public perception. Especially along the panhandle, where the summer vacation season is just beginning, the next three months are critical.

At the Scipio Creek Marina in Apalachicola, charter Captain Charles Wilson says by his calculations, the spill has already cost him $12,000 in cancellations and lost bookings.

Captain CHARLES WILSON (Owner, Capt. Charles Charters and Guide Service): People are afraid. Thats the biggest problem, is people are afraid. And if they're afraid, they say, well, we don't have to go to Apalachicola. We can go elsewhere, you know.

ALLEN: Along the panhandle, it's a similar story with hotels, fishing guides and charter boats all taking a hit. But despite the angst and business losses, people here know they're lucky. If their luck holds out and the oil slick is stopped before it hits Florida's beaches and prime fishing grounds, Wilson says Apalachicola may end up like Forrest Gump.

In the movie, you may recall, he had the only shrimp boat left after Hurricane Carmen destroyed the rest of the fleet.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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