One-third of the Gulf of Mexico's federal waters are now closed to recreational and commercial fishing because of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Since Monday, the closed area has included a stretch of water from the Florida Panhandle from Perdido Key near Pensacola to Cape San Blas near Apalachicola.
But most of that 150-mile-long area that's closed doesn't include the nine-mile buffer of state waters that lies between Florida's shoreline and the start of federal jurisdiction in the gulf. State wildlife officials have closed only one 23-mile-long segment of state waters off Pensacola.
So for about 125 miles along the Florida coast, fishing is fine in state waters but banned starting at the nine-mile point offshore.
Banning fishing throughout the Panhandle's close-in waters would hurt charter boat captains and other tourism-related businesses even further, but state officials wouldn't attribute their actions to such concerns. However, they can't really explain why they closed the area they shut down and nothing else.
"It's basically a putting-our-heads-together kind of thing," said Lee Schlesinger of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "I can't define it. But if there's a significant amount of visible oil on the surface, we will close it."
Even in the small area they've closed, state officials will still allow anglers who practice catch-and-release fishing to continue dropping a hook. They just don't want anyone taking one of those fish home.
Every beach around Pensacola has been closed to swimming by Escambia County officials because of what they called the "extensive presence of oil sheen, oil mousse and tar balls" in the water. So that's been the only area where state waters are closed.
Although not as overrun with oil as Escambia, counties to the east have had problems with tar balls and tar mats washing ashore. In Santa Rosa County this week, county officials put booms across their canals and bayous to keep the incoming oil out of inland waterways. An oiled loon was found with tar patties stuck to its chest in Okaloosa County. In Walton County, tar balls littered the beaches for miles.
The state wildlife agency, which distributes bumper stickers declaring Florida to be the "Fishing Capital of the World," was shooting for "the minimal amount we need to close," Schlesinger said. "We're trying to be surgical."
The decision to close only that one stretch was made with the agreement of officials from the state Department of Environmental Protection, the lead state agency dealing with the spill. DEP Secretary Mike Sole said tar balls and tar mats don't pollute the water the way the more liquified oil does.
"I'd be a liar if I called it inert," he said, but water samples taken right next to floating tar balls failed to produce "any significant water quality issues."
The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, on the other hand, is trying to predict where the oil will go next, in part because it polices the waters where most commercial fishing occurs. It's trying to ensure no oil-tainted seafood gets to consumers, explained Roy Crabtree, who heads up the southeastern regional office of NOAA's fisheries division.
That's no easy task. On Friday scientists with Tulane University and the University of Southern Mississippi reported for the first time finding oil droplets in the larvae of blue crabs and fiddler crabs sampled from Louisiana to Pensacola. The larvae are eaten by many different types of fish in the gulf.
Crabtree starts each day at his office in St. Petersburg reviewing a fistful of maps showing where the oil has been and where it might show up within 48 to 72 hours. If the oil is going to be beyond the current closed area within 48 hours, then he moves the boundary.
"We also look back to see if the oil did go where it was projected to go. If it didn't, we reopen that area," he said. "And if the oil is moving quickly we sometimes put more emphasis on the 72 hours trajectory, so we don't get left behind."
Crabtree is convinced this method is working. So far, he said, "we have not had any reports of any tainted seafood showing up in the market." However, Sole said state officials are working hard to convince Crabtree's office to reopen a big segment of the closed area that lies off Florida's peninsula, since no oil is curently present in the Loop Current.
Crabtree would not criticize Florida officials for not closing off more of the state's waters to match the federal closures.
"If you look at the information we have, and the maps of the Panhandle, the oil is stopping around the state-federal line, because of the way the currents and things are happening," he said.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report, which includes information from the Biloxi Sun Herald.