MADEIRA BEACH — Local fishermen say it's only a matter of time before the Gulf of Mexico oil spill strangles their business.
"If that oil gets over here, we're all done," said Greg Haring, 48, captain of the Big Dog, a 34-foot fishing boat.
Haring and several other fishermen gathered on the docks of Fishbusterz early Monday to unload their hauls and gear up for a considerably fast turnaround. This oil spill, unlike anything they've seen, has them fearing the worst.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Sunday restricted fishing for at least 10 days in waters closest to the spill, mostly stretching from the mouth of the Mississippi River in Louisiana to Pensacola Bay.
Fishermen in the Madeira Beach area, widely regarded as the west coast's fishing hub, were already dealing with several blows this season, including record-breaking cold and new federal regulations that limit how much fish they can catch.
The locals talked about catching as many fish as possible before the oil ruins their fishing spots.
"I believe that's a matter of a very short period of time," Haring said.
He returned from a 13-day fishing trip Sunday, oblivious to the catastrophe floating in the gulf. He found out when a new neighbor said BP had hired him for cleanup efforts in New Orleans.
His friend offered some advice: "Greg, you better get a lawyer, because you're done."
Tom Herzhauser, 53, a Tarpon Springs fish processor and restaurant owner, worried about how a local fishing ban would affect the local market. Florida visitors expect fresh fish, he said.
"Grouper has always been on my menu," he said.
If the spill spoils the domestic market, Herzhauser said one option would be to import from Mexico. But that means the fish would have a shorter shelf life, and, he said, "we hate to go down that road."
Reba Ferrell, Fishbusterz manager, printed out a copy of the NOAA fishing closure and watched as Herzhauser pointed to the affected area on a map. She fears the Gulf of Mexico's loop current will bring the oil through Tampa Bay waters and around to the East Coast.
"We'll continue to fish until NOAA or some higher power tells us not to," she said. "It'll devastate the fisheries."
Bobby Spaeth, owner of Madeira Beach Seafood Co., said he is worried people will read media reports about the spill and stop eating seafood.
Like the fishermen, he's also worried about the effects of an indefinite halt to fishing. "If we get cut off from fishing, what are we going to do in the short term? What kind of help is available?" Spaeth said. "Does anybody really care about us?"
The ripple will devastate more than just fisheries, he said. Tackle stores, boat companies and bait houses would also struggle.
"We're all in the same boat here," he said.
Haring said he could use some rest after spending nearly two weeks 140 miles from the coast. Still, he thinks he'll head back out as early as Thursday.
This time he says he'll turn on his satellite radio and stay in the know.
His income depends on it.
"I'll be going back out pretty darn quick," he said. "Panic's just starting to set in because it's not good."