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East Coast boaters to keep eyes out for spill

Oily globules bobbed on the ocean, masses of them for hundreds of yards, sinking six feet deep.

That was 2007.

The mess spread along a wide stretch of sea only 40 miles out. The people aboard a deep-sea fishing boat who saw it assumed it had been already reported to somebody.

They were wrong.

Within a few weeks, sticky chunks of tar began washing up along beaches from Beaufort to Cape Island in the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge near McClellanville.

Researchers today are coming to a consensus that some form of remnants from the massive oil leak now in the Gulf of Mexico will make its way into the Gulf Stream, sooner or later, and travel up the East Coast at least as far as the Outer Banks in North Carolina.

Whether it would move in to South Carolina beaches can't be predicted yet.

S.C. Natural Resources research vessels already are carrying oil-monitoring test kits.

And meanwhile, a loose flotilla of thousands of recreational and commercial boaters is rallying to keep watch.

That would offer a few badly needed extra eyes to federal and state agencies, and could give pollution clean-up teams a critical early warning to keep off the beaches whatever gunk that might show up.

"How much gets here and in what form is anybody's guess," said Bob Van Doolah, DNR Marine Resources Research Institute director. "The sooner we know about it the better."

The boating public is usually the first to find and report offshore pollution, said Lt. Commander Ryan Rhodes, U.S. Coast Guard, Charleston.

Recreational and commercial fishing groups such as the Recreational Fishing Alliance's South Carolina chapter, the Coastal Conservation Association in South Carolina and the South Carolina Seafood Alliance are asking members to keep their eyes out and report oil sightings to the National Response Center, a one-stop federal clearinghouse for dealing with hazardous spills.

"I'm positive (commercial anglers) would do it anyway," said South Carolina Seafood Alliance Director Frank Blum. "Something like that, it goes without saying that it's being done. It's top of the list [because] it's going to affect us."

The message is going out to 50,000 members of the fishing alliance nationwide, said Wes Covington, state chapter chairman.

The alliance already pushed for state legislation requiring agencies to have a contingency plan for dealing with any toxic effects of the oil leak.

"These impacts will cascade through the food web and eventually affect the larger species at the top of the food chain like marine mammal and birds, but we don't really know how it will happen," said Phil Dustan, College of Charleston biology professor, who has urged boaters to get involved.

"There is simply not enough being done to help protect nature. This is really a time for people to come together to help in any way they can."

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