HERNANDO BEACH —Although the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster in April that was so much a part of the news in 2010 never directly affected the waters of Hernando County, its impact was still felt locally.
The millions of gallons of crude oil that gushed into the Gulf of Mexico for months seeped into the lives of those working in the commercial and recreational fishing industry. For some commercial fishermen, who already were facing tough times in the economic downturn, it added only more misery.
"It's been very bad all around for anyone in the commercial fishing industry," said Kathryn Birren, owner of five fishing boats and the Hernando Beach Seafood wholesale/retail seafood business. "We've never seen anything like it in our lives."
During the summer, Birren helped organize and draw attention to the local plight that the oil spill was affecting local fishing interests. Although she was successful in her appeal to stall the state's annual commercial fishing deadlines by 90 days, she remained miffed about the muted response by BP and governmental agencies over the impact the spill had on local interests.
"There was some help from BP, but it wasn't nearly enough," Birren said. "We're still waiting."
Not long after the spill, Birren and others in the Hernando Beach seafood industry began to see the effects that would eventually cripple their industry. Although most Gulf seafood remained plentiful in major fishing regions west of Hernando County, the market prices dropped off over the perception by the public that anything caught off the west coast of Florida was tainted by the oil.
"You could catch plenty of fish, but nobody was willing to pay for them," said fisherman Joe Bari. "You ended up going out for a day and making nothing. You can't keep doing that forever."
Birren says that things haven't improved much since then. Catches are down significantly from previous years. Her clients, many of whom dock their boats at her facility, are barely hanging on.
"(Stone) crab hauls have dropped at least 12 percent," she said. "That's affecting a lot of folks who have debt to pay from last summer. If it keeps up, you're looking at a sizable number of people that are going to be out of work soon."
Birren also blamed BP for its slow action in paying for damage caused by the spill. As of Monday, she and members of her family are still waiting on word as to whether the majority of their claims will be paid.
"It's catch as catch can," Birren said. "Some people got money, but a lot of people I've talked to haven't."
Environmental activist Dr. Riki Ott visited Hernando Beach in June at Birren's request. She warned that dispersants used to clean up the oil may have created a disaster that might take decades before fishing returns to normal levels.
Ott, who was a commercial fisherman working the waters off Prince William Sound in Alaska when the Exxon Valdez ran aground, spilling at least 250,000 barrels of oil, advised residents to consider forming community interest groups and keep pressuring state and federal officials to make sure BP lives up to its promises to mitigate the damage.
"When you hear them say, 'We're going to honor all reasonable claims', that means, 'We'll see you in court,' " Ott said.
Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or [email protected]