Feds re-open Gulf waters to fishing

PANAMA CITY, Fla. – Aug. 11, 2010 – Federal officials on Tuesday reopened federal waters off the Florida Panhandle to commercial and recreational fishing, saying that National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data have shown no oil in the area.

The Coast Guard also says it hasn’t seen any oil in the last 30 days in the 5,144-square mile area of the Gulf, allowing it to be cleared for fishing. Officials in Gulf states, including Florida, were part of the decision, according to NOAA.

The closure had stunted Florida’s Panhandle fishing industry, even though large swaths of the Gulf never closed to fishing. Public confusion about allowable fishing caused problems for charter fishing captains, who saw a significant drop in clients during recent months. It also has led to a downturn in seafood sales with customers wary of possible impacts from the BP spill.

“Consumer safety is NOAA’s primary concern, which is why we developed rigorous safety standards in conjunction with the FDA and the Gulf states to ensure that seafood is safe in the reopened area,” said Jane Lubchenco, under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator. “We are confident that Gulf fish from this area is safe to eat and pleased that recreational and commercial fisherman can fish these waters again.”

Gov. Charlie Crist praised the move.

“The federal waters off beautiful Northwest Florida are once again open for fishing, and Florida’s commercial and recreational fishermen are eager to get back to work,” Crist said in a statement. “I join them in celebrating this much-needed boost to our economy and quality of life.” He then invited people to come to the Panhandle to go to the beach and “enjoy Florida’s delicious seafood.”

NOAA officials said they sampled 153 finfish, including grouper, snapper, tuna and mahi mahi, from the area from June 27 through July 20. NOAA scientists found “no detectable oil or dispersant odors or flavors, and results of chemical analysis well below the levels of concern.” NOAA will continue to take test samples from the newly re-opened area, and the agency has also implemented dockside sampling to test fish caught by commercial fishermen.

After Tuesday’s announcement, the closed area in the Gulf now includes 52,395 miles, or 22 percent of federal waters in the Gulf, down from 37 percent at its largest. NOAA had already re-opened about 26,000 square miles of the eastern Gulf off of Florida last month.

With Tuesday’s action, fishing is allowed in an area as close as about 115 miles from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead that was leaking oil.

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