Boaters to bird watchers; shrimpers to surfers.They're all keeping a wary eye on the Gulf of Mexico.
Florida's economic fortunes are tiedin multiple ways to how currents affect the ever-expanding oil spill oozing from the sea floor from a drilling platform that collapsed April 21.
About a third of Florida's population lives in coastal counties along the gulf. The state's $65 billion tourism industry hinges in no small part on the state's attractive beaches. As does its lucrative saltwater fishing and boating industries.
"There's certainly a lot at stake in Florida from any possible contamination by this oil spill," said University of Florida agriculture economist Alan Hodges.
Wildlife viewing activities generate more than $3 billion in Florida each year. The Florida Fish & Wildlife's "Great Florida Birding Trail" identifies 489 birding sites statewide. Many of Florida's water birds, including gulls, terns, skimmers, plovers, willets and oystercatchers, nest on the beach.
As many as 200 diving customers at MBT Dive and Surf have already canceled for next month. That's 5 percent of the 4,000 annual customers, said Jim Phillips, co-owner of the shop. The shop takes divers to the reef created recently by the sinking of the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany. "Our calendar is awfully empty," Phillips said. "Everybody's kind of walking in circles, wringing their hands, saying what can we do?"
If the oil comes ashore in the Panhandle, the beaches would have to be shut down, said Stephen "Dr. Beach" Leatherman, director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University. The move would cripple the economy in those beach communities. "The Panhandle beaches are world famous for their white sand," Leatherman said. "It's probably some of the finest white sand in the world."
A popular surfing area, particularly in the summer months when school is out and tropical storms and hurricanes create big, rolling waves.
A brand new airport opens in this month, and the Panhandle enters its busiest and most lucrative months for beach businesses.
Real estate development
St. Joe Co., one of Florida's largest private land owners, dominates beachfront development along the Panhandle with thousands of acres of upscale homes and vacation properties starting just east of Destin and dotting the coastline west to Port St. Joe and St. James Island south of Tallahassee. An oil slick on the Panhandle beaches would be disastrous for attracting potential buyers.
Home to five pristine barrier islands and the bulk of the state's oyster industry. If oil threatens, officials said they will try to block the water between the islands to protect the bay and estuaries where the oysters grow.
Home to seagrass beds and estuaries that serve as nursery grounds this time of year for snapper and grouper.
Remains a draw for blue crabs and stone crabs. It has also become a hot spot with sea kayakers and other boaters who explore St. Marks National Wildlife reserve. Boating had an $18 billion impact on the state's economy in 2008.
Regulation of the commercial fishing industry in recent years has prompted Steinhatchee's economy to shift to a greater reliance on the hospitality industry. On the fishing side: Blue crab, black mullet and bait shrimp were the three biggest draws last year.
A popular spot for tourists and recreational fishermen. One of the largest producers of farm raised clams with a dockside value of about $17 million in 2007.
Suwannee to Weeki Wachee
One of the few areas in the state to find healthy populations of the Florida bay scallop, a mollusk that lives in relatively shallow water within seagrass beds. Residential harvest season begins July 1.
If the oil slick reaches the Crystal River nuclear plant – which depends on drawing in gulf waters to cool the plant – Progress Energy Florida has "oil spill response" contractors ready with booms. They normally use booms to prevent oil from escaping power plants into the gulf, "but they can work the other way around," the company says.
Tampa Bay area
Commercial fishing is a small, but colorful slice of the bay area economy. Tourists and residents savor grouper, snapper and stone crab straight from local docks. The food chain survives on estuaries, grasses, mangroves and shallow reefs up to 100 miles from shore, all of which can be devastated by heavy tar balls from the spill. If northwest winds bring the spill ashore, "you better start freezing your fish,'' says Bob Spaeth, who runs a Madeira Beach seafood house. "It could collapse the whole seafood business, because once we go away, we aren't coming back. The infrastructure will die.''
The county relies on beach tourism. Visitor numbers were already down4 percent last year from 2008. More than 950,000 Europeans, most from the United Kingdom and Germany, spent at least one night in Pinellas, accounting for nearly 20 percent of all visitors in 2009. They tend to stay longer and spend more than domestic tourists. If the oil spill scares them off, the beach communities would take a serious hit to their pocketbooks.
In 2008, Manatee County's total seafood harvest was just under 5 million pounds, making it the sixth-biggest producer among Florida's coastal counties.
Huge draw for recreational saltwater fishing, which statewide had a $5 billion economic impact. On average, 35 million fishing trips are taken in the state each year.
Along the southern peninsula
In recent years, clam farming has been Florida's fastest-growing aquaculture industry. State officials say that's in part due to retraining programs in Dixie, Levy, Taylor, Volusia, Charlotte and Lee counties. The programs used government funds to teach clam and oyster culture techniques to commercial fishers that had been negatively impacted by changing fishery regulations.
A haven for laid-back tourists. It's also a top destination for snorkeling — a conservatively estimated$239 million industry in Florida — and scuba diving — a $45 million industry. Monroe County also boasts the biggest seafood harvest among Florida's coastal counties, accounting for 100 percent of the nation's spinylobster catch.
Oceanographers fear that if the spill gets caught in the gulf's powerful loop current, the oil could wind up on the beaches of the keys and then be swept north, along the state's Atlantic Coast.