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USF to study how commercial fishermen were affected economically by BP oil spill

ST. PETERSBURG — Six years ago, when the Deepwater Horizon disaster forced the federal government to close off vast tracts of the Gulf of Mexico to fishing, some commercial fisherman weighed anchor and tried their luck elsewhere. Others quit fishing to work for BP on the cleanup.

But exactly how many did which, and what impact that had on their finances, has never been gauged.

Now, thanks to a $1 million grant, marine scientists from the University of South Florida, the University of Miami and University of California will try to figure that out. They will examine data that they expect will help them understand how the oil spill affected fishermen economically.

The researchers hope to learn how many tried a new fishing area and how many worked on the cleanup, and which paid better.

The grant from the National Academies of Science would then allow them to create a computer model to calculate how future oil spills might hurt the fishing industry in other areas, said Steve Murawski, a USF fisheries biologist who has overseen numerous projects related to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.

"Say five years from now there's a proposal for drilling off Florida," Murawski said. "We could make a projection that if there's a spill, what would be the impact on the counties there."

The Deepwater Horizon disaster began in April 2010 with an explosion that killed 11 crew members. The rig sank 5,000 feet to the bottom of the gulf and began gushing oil.

Because the leak happened so far from the surface, BP could not immediately shut it off. Underwater robots sent down to monitor the spill broadcast live footage of the oil gushing from the rig, footage shown around the world.

The spill created a slick on the surface that was large enough to see from space. The oil washed ashore in marshes and on beaches from Louisiana across the gulf, reaching the Florida Panhandle in June. BP finally was able to shut off the flow in July.

To try to stop the oil from reaching shore, BP sprayed a record amount of the chemical dispersant Corexit. The company even sprayed the dispersant deep underwater as the oil shot out of the broken rig, something that had never been tried before. It created an underwater plume of oil droplets that snaked through the gulf's deep canyons, a crucial habitat for commercially valuable fish.

So far scientists have confirmed that the oil killed pelicans, oysters, dolphins, coral and sea turtles. It also caused heart damage to bluefin tuna and deformities among shrimp, killifish and crabs, not to mention lesions and immune system problems in redfish.

That's why one of the spill's biggest economic victims was the seafood industry. Florida fishermen catch more than 84 percent of the nation's supply of grouper, pompano, mullet, stone crab, pink shrimp, spiny lobsters and Spanish mackerel, a haul totaling more than $200 million annually.

As the spill grew larger that summer, so did the area of the gulf closed to fishing by the National Marine Fisheries Service office in St. Petersburg. Ultimately more than 88,000 square miles — a third of the gulf — was shut down.

That's the time period that Murawski says this new study will focus on first.

Commercial fishermen carry satellite trackers that show "each hour of each day where they are," Murawski said. The scientists will combine that data with the entries in the fishermen's logbooks showing where their catches were landed and what they are worth, he explained. They can also use the information from scientific observers who rode along on a small percentage of the trips.

"We can see when an area closed and did the vessels move or did they participate" in the cleanup program, he said.

He hopes to consult with the fishing industry for pointers on how best to apply and use the information, too. The end result should be ready in two years, he said.

One factor not addressed by the USF study concerns the health of those who worked on the cleanup. A National Institutes of Health study has already found that thousands of people hired to help clean up the oil are experiencing problems with their respiratory systems that may be tied to their exposure.

Contact Craig Pittman at Follow @craigtimes