Oil Hit-or-Miss on Gulf Beaches, as Are Tourists

In this June 14, 2010 picture, Cecelia Burleson, 3, plays in the Gulf of Mexico in Long Beach, Miss. Mississippi has--so far, at least--been spared the worst of the environmental degradation caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. That is in large part due to the underwater DeSoto Canyon, which is south of the Florida panhandle and helps direct water currents near the leak site eastward toward Alabama and Florida. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

Millions of gallons of oil have gushed into the Gulf since the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon in April, yet many of the Gulf Coast's famous white beaches are still untouched.

But health advisories, along with images of the oil spill's impacts in the Gulf, have scared off tourists.

Parts of Louisiana's shoreline and marshes have been coated with globs of oil. In Alabama, rust-colored tar balls have washed ashore, and officials have warned people not to swim at some beaches. Tar balls have washed ashore in Pensacola, and a portion of state waters off the Florida Panhandle have been closed to fishing,

There are also health concerns about seafood, after a third of federal waters in the Gulf have been closed to commercial and recreational fishing.

Special Section: Disaster in the Gulf

Tracey Winspeare, who lives near Cambridge, England, was enjoying the weather as she sunbathed Monday on a clean stretch of white sand in Long Beach, Miss.

"It's beautiful here. I love it," Winspeare, a 23-year-old genealogist, told The Associated Press. But she added she was reluctant to set foot in the water owing to the possibility of unseen chemical dangers from oil.

Gov. Haley Barbour, R, has blamed the news media for the hit taken by tourism in his state.

On Sunday's "Face the Nation," Barbour claimed the news media could have differentiated between the spill's impacts on Louisiana (where oil slicks have coated beaches, marshes and wildlife), and on his state (where beaches are largely free of oil), but that "it chose not to."

"The people of the United States have the impression the whole Gulf of Mexico is ankle-deep in oil, which is simply not the case," Barbour said.


Louisiana

On Monday Louisiana's Department of Wildlife and Fisheries announced that some areas closed to fishing in Lower Plaquemines Parish have been reopened.

Still, closures affect roughly one-quarter of waters off the state's eastern coastline.

The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals has also posted advisories at several beaches and state parks where water quality testing has indicated a health hazard. These include Constance Beach, Cypremort State Park, Fontainebleau State Park, Gulf Breeze Beach, Holly Beach, Little Florida Beach, Long Beach, Martin, Rutherford, and South Beach.

No advisories have been issued for North Beach, Fourchon, Grand Isle or Grand Isle State Park.


Mississippi

Oil has affected some of Mississippi's barrier islands near Alabama (where patches of gooey tar have washed ashore), but the state's manmade beaches remain largely untouched except for tar balls.

(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Don Johnson, an oceanographer at the University of Southern Mississippi's Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, said the ruptured BP oil well is situated along the upper slope of the continental shelf, and the DeSoto Canyon (located south of the Florida Panhandle) helps direct water currents eastward toward Alabama and Florida.

(Left: Jeb Lemons, 4, watches a hermit crab walk along a beach in Biloxi, Miss., Monday, June 14, 2010.)

During July, winds usually blow from the south-southwest and that means oil in the Gulf will continue to move toward parts of the Florida Panhandle near Apalachicola, Johnson said.

Mississippi has seen some signs of trouble. Strands of caramel-colored oil were discovered two weeks ago south of one of the barrier islands, Petit Bois island, which is near the Alabama line and which locals pronounce "Petty Boy."

About 140 dead turtles have been found since the spill.

Harrison County Emergency Management director Rupert Lacy said crews have collected a few gallons of tar balls or "tar pancakes" on the main beaches.

But the number of visitors to Mississippi's coast is down nonetheless. A state tourism official told a House Committee hearing last week that hotel and motel reservations on the Gulf Coast are down 50 percent.

"The phone has stopped ringing on the Gulf Coast," said Mississippi Development Authority's Mary Beth Wilkerson.


Alabama

As of Monday, waters off public beaches in the City of Orange Beach are closed for swimming or wading, although the beaches themselves are still open.

(AP Photo/Dave Martin)
Recreational vessels and watercraft (including recreational fishing boats) are not being permitted in Alabama waters inclusive of Bayou St. John, Terry Cover, Terry Cove Harbor, Cotton Bayou, Perdido Pass and all canals entering these waters.

The privately-owned Ono Island has closed its canals and harbor.

(Left: Jeb Harrison of Birmingham, Ala., looks at long lines of crude oil on the shoreline at in Orange Beach, Ala., Saturday.)

The Alabama Department of Public Health released advisories against swimming in coastal areas off Gulf Shores, Orange Beach and Fort Morgan, and in bay waters immediately adjacent to Fort Morgan, in Bayou St. John, Terry Cove, Cotton Bayou and Old River, due to the increased presence of oil.

It also advised consumers not to eat seafood if it smells or tastes like oil.

In Gulf Shores, Ala., "the parking lots look more like October instead of June," said Lee Sentell, a spokesman for Alabama Tourism, a state agency. "Since the oil arrived, the reservations have slowed dramatically."

Several organizations that handle meetings and conferences said they did not know of widespread cancellations, but the Knowland Group, which collects data in the industry, surveyed 50 hotels across the Gulf Coast June 2-3 and found 60 percent had group booking cancellations.


Florida

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has also temporarily closed a portion of coastal state waters off Escambia County to harvesting saltwater fish, crabs and shrimp. Catch-and-release recreational fishing is still allowed.

Beaches are open and swimming is allowed in Escambia County, Fla. There are reports that the amount of tar balls washing ashore in Pensacola has lessened. There have also been tar balls sighted in Perdido Key.

President Obama visited Pensacola today, where people were swimming in the glistening, emerald green water. Yet tourism here is down 40 percent.

"There are obviously fears about the oil that's offshore," he said.


Fisheries

The majority of federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico are open to commercial and recreational fishing. However, fisheries covering 78,264 sq. miles, or about 32% of the Gulf of Mexico exclusive economic zone, have been closed by the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).


(AP/CBS/NOAA)
  • David Morgan

    David Morgan is a senior editor at CBSNews.com and cbssundaymorning.com.

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