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Fishermen eager as Gulf waters closed by BP spill reopen

BRADENTON, Fla. — There was just the hint of a celebratory note in the voice of Capt. Kenneth L. Daniels Jr. as he planned a comeback Monday for his fishing fleet, now that a huge section of the Gulf off Florida's west coast has been reopened to fishing.

Daniels is stocking his boats in preparation for a Wednesday departure. His fishing vessels will be heading for part of the area covering 26,388 square miles of the Gulf of Mexico that federal officials last week reopened to commercial and recreational fishing.

As a precaution, the huge expanse of water had been closed due to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

“Oh, it will greatly help us,” said Daniels of St. Petersburg, speaking on a cellphone from his 55-footer, the Miss Anita. It was docked south of Ruskin, along the pristine coast near the midsection of the state. “For us commercial fishermen, they shut us down.”

He and his crew members have been out of work for three months, and they are anxious to be on their way on a southwesterly course going 145 to 180 miles out, Daniels said.

Fishermen and those who cater to recreational anglers have been among the most severely affected by effects of the massive spill.

Many have been out of work altogether or underemployed since the spill began in April.

So, a little good news went a long way with them.

“We’re excited,” said Leslie Weed, a Sarasota fishing tournament director. “I was doing the ‘Snoopy dance’ last week when it was opened up.”

Weed directs the Sarasota Slam, a fishing tournament slated for next week in Sarasota that typically draws 250 anglers. Many participants will be fishing in the area that was previously off-limits, she said.

“It’s a very, very positive development,” said Jim Simons, president of the World Billfish Series, based in St. Petersburg, which organizes 50 bill fishing tournaments worldwide, some of which were canceled due to the spill, and are now being re-scheduled. “We’re looking for more developments like this.”

Federal officials closed the area to fishing because a light oil sheen had been observed in the northeastern Gulf, and was expected to move south, according to a bulletin from the National Marine Fisheries Service, based in St. Petersburg. But data revealed no oil there since mid-June, a finding also confirmed by U.S. Coast Guard observers.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials followed a strict protocol before approving the reopening, according to John Stein, program manager for the agency’s seafood safety program, based in Pascagoula, Miss.

From June 23-July 13, the agency sent fishermen out to collect 52 samples of fish species from the area.

“We had boats all over the Gulf, for-hire boats, NOAA boats, too,” he said.

Scientists needed to know exactly where and when the fish were caught. Eventually, the fish went to a lab in Pascagoula, where they were examined by experts, whose highly developed sense of smell and taste can detect oil and dispersant, Stein said. Afterward, the samples underwent a detailed chemical analysis.

Once all the data was assembled, officials decided seafood from the area was safe for consumption, and announced its reopening.

But 57, 539 square miles of federal waters are still closed, or about 24 percent of the Gulf’s exclusive economic zone, according to the bulletin.

“Any good press is great because the only thing we’ve had is bad,” said Mason Tush, manager for CB’s Saltwater Outfitters, a Siesta Key retail store that sells live bait, rents boats and offers fishing charters.

Although CB’s customers primarily stay closer to shore, some do go farther out, and it will be good for them, Tush said.

“If they’re opening stuff, it’s a great sign,” Tush said. “The biggest thing is that any good news is great news; anything out there saying things might be getting better, or might be OK, is wonderful for the area.”

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