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Gulf island, still free of oil, is focus of concern

SHIP ISLAND, Miss. — Dolphins played Tuesday in the warm Gulf of Mexico waters on the approach to this picturesque island nearly 12 miles off the Mississippi coast, but conservationists worried that could soon change if a huge oil slick swirling miles away comes ashore.

On the island, the bodies of a bird, a young shark and several jellyfish had washed up near the western tip, though it was unclear what killed them.

Conservationists and tour boat captains said the plants and animals on and around the island are a reminder of what's at stake with offshore drilling.

"If it gets into the (Mississippi Sound), God help us," Capt. Louis Skmetta said of the oil slick, which was being held at bay by favorable winds. "We hope it won't happen."

The bulk of the oil slick remained about 30 miles offshore Tuesday and was expected to stay there Wednesday, though reporters flying over the area on Monday spotted small patches of what appeared to be rust-colored oil in the channel between Cat Island and Ship Island.

Skmetta captains one of the ferries to the island operated by Ship Island Excursions. His livelihood depends on clean waters and beaches to entice tourists to sign up for day trips to Ship Island, which has clean beaches and waves taller than those on the mainland's shores.

Besides the harm to commercial species, game fish such as sharks, mullet, white trout and others could be killed. That concerns Capt. Tom Becker, the president of the Mississippi Charter Boat Captains Association. Becker said he's hoping the oil spill doesn't creep past the barrier islands; if it does, that'll kill fishing this summer for charter captains.

"It would give us a safe haven if it didn't come in here any closer," Becker said. "They're catching fish right out here right now."

Mississippi Sierra Club Senior Regional Representative Louie Miller said he thinks there should be more boats out placing booms to protect the islands.

On Tuesday, the island's defenses appeared limited to two strings of anti-oil booms strung along the island's western tip; one strand had been placed last week, and a second, sturdier-looking strand was added in recent days. No others were visible near the western part of the island, but a large boat with more boom material was working in the area Tuesday.

Miller said he'd also like to see the military get involved to stop the gushing oil, which is spewing thousands of barrels of oil a day.

Skrmetta fears that despite the flurry of activity, the spill's potential damage is being "sugarcoated" by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who's expressed faith that the spill won't come ashore, by the country's national leadership and by BP, the company whose well exploded last month, sinking the offshore drill rig Deepwater Horizon and setting off the spill.

Skrmetta, who's a member of the Sierra Club, noted that the effects of the Exxon-Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989 lingered for many years.

"We know what happened at Prince William Sound. We're not stupid," Skrmetta said. "We know about the chemicals that caused problems in Prince William Sound. We don't want that to happen here. We don't want dead sea turtles on our beach."

(Newsom reports for the Sun Herald in Biloxi, Miss.)


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