One day shy of the one-year anniversary of the worst oil spill in the nation's history, the last section of Gulf of Mexico waters previously closed to fishing has reopened, signifying a significant milestone for those affected by the spill.
The 1,041 square miles of Gulf waters immediately surrounding the Deepwater Horizon wellhead were reopened April 19 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) after extensive testing of finfish and seafood in the area. The finfish passed sensory analyses for oil or dispersant and chemical analyses showed oil compounds were well below levels of concern. NOAA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also performed tests for dispersants in fish, oysters, crabs and shrimp and the levels detected were 1,000 times below the FDA levels of concern.
Major Chris Blankenship, Acting Director of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources' Marine Resources Division, said the reopening of all the Gulf waters was a welcome achievement, and the seafood and fish in Alabama waters also appear to be in good shape.
"The fish, the shrimp, the crabs, the oysters - all those stocks look healthy right now," Blankenship said. "It's a little bit early on the shrimp because our spring crop is just now coming in. But from our initial samples, the abundance seems to be good."
Blankenship said there has been little apparent impact on marine resources and the division is busy monitoring all activities along the Alabama Gulf Coast to assess any changes.
"We're looking at the seafood landings and the catch-per-unit effort for the people out fishing," he said. "Those seemed to be good over the winter and spring. In April, we're just now seeing a lot more recreational fishermen out, and their catches appear to be good. We've seen some snapper with lesions, mostly from offshore. But those seem to be nothing out of the ordinary. They appear to be bacterial. We see those from time to time. We are working with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries) to get any suspect fish and have them tested."
From Blankenship's perspective, the massive effort to block the flow of oil into Alabama's sensitive coastal habitat was successful. The oil that did hit the beaches was cleaned up in a timely manner.
"Everything looks OK," he said. "The beaches look good and we didn't have very much oil in our marshes. The boom pretty much contained it and kept it out of the marshes in most of our areas. There has been a lot of submerged oil testing in the sediment from one side of the state to the other and hadn't really turned up any lingering oil in Mobile Bay or Mississippi Sound. There are still some submerged tar mats just of the beach. But it's not toxic. It's basically a big concentration of tar balls."
Blankenship said there were some "unusual events" that occurred over the winter with the deaths of sea turtles, mainly off Mississippi, and dolphins off the coasts of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. However, he said those deaths have not been connected directly to the oil spill, and the National Marine Fisheries Service has taken numerous samples to analyze to try to determine a cause.
"A lot of those deaths, or unusual mortality events, actually started last February and March, before the oil spill," he said. "It's been a continuation from that. They're doing a lot of tissue testing and necropsies on the dolphins. We hope to get some better answers from that. Those are a little worrisome until we can get some more information. But those are some of the things we're assessing as we go.
"One of the biggest impacts for Alabama was economic - the tourists that didn't come, the people who didn't fish because so many of the areas were closed. We hope to get those people back this spring and summer. It's looking better. Our saltwater license sales have been pretty good, so far. April is usually the month when people get out after the winter, and it's been a good April, from what we've been seeing."
From an economic standpoint, Herb Malone, President and CEO of the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the oil spill couldn't have occurred at a more inopportune time for the coastal area.
"Last year, financially, it was about as bad as it could get," Malone said. "There were a number of issues. One, it came at the eve of our high season, rather than at the end, like a tropical storm typically does. Also, it came at the end of a two-year down cycle because of the recession. That is why businesses were very limited on their reserve capabilities because of both of those issues."
Malone said there was about a 50-percent decline in lodging revenues and about a 35- to 40-percent decline in retail shopping and dining revenues for the summer.
"Of course, summer is when 65- to 90-percent, depending on which business you talk to, of the revenue is generated," he said. "Those who survived really struggled. They had to tighten their belts in ways I've never seen before. But the spirit stayed good."
Malone said many of the captains in the charter boat industry were able to work for BP through its Vessels of Opportunity (VOO) program and were able to make ends meet financially. Now the charters are headed out to catch a variety of species, including tuna and cobia.
"From what I understand, they've caught quite a few tuna and the cobia are currently running the beaches," he said. "I got a text message from (Capt.) Ben Fairey that they had had a really good day cobia fishing. Of course, they're all anxiously awaiting the opening of red snapper season on June 1st. But, they've got plenty of other fish to catch right now.
Malone said with a hurricane or tropical storm, the damage usually occurs in a matter of days. The lack of progress to cap the Deepwater Horizon blowout turned anxiety into torture - for months.
"It was a very trying time, very stressful because there was so much uncertainty," he said. "When they finally got the well capped about mid-July that was a relief. Then about mid-August they reported they had officially sealed the well. That was a huge, huge relief, because there for a while they kept trying different methods that weren't successful. Some people were speculating it could last for years. That would have destroyed our economy permanently if that had happened. Fortunately, that did not happen."
Malone said the Gulf Shores/Orange Beach area had a good snowbird season and is nearing the end of a good spring break season. Reservations for summer are also running quite a bit ahead of last year before the spill occurred.
"We got a lot of good feedback from the snowbirds, and they were extremely helpful and extremely interested in what we had gone through and what they could do to help," he said. "As we told them, or anyone who comes down for a stay at the beach or for a concert, the best way they can help us is to help spread the word - our beaches are clean, our water is clear and the seafood is fine. Our slogan is 'Come See What You've Been Missing.'"
For comparison, Malone said the economic numbers that will deem if the Alabama Gulf Coast is back on its feet will be from the 2009 season.
"Our last normal year was 2009," he said. "That year, we hosted 2.4 million visitors, who spent $2.3 billion dollars. If we can get back to that level in 2011, I'll be very satisfied.
"We've had good positive messaging and publicity in recent weeks. Quite a bit of national media came through the week of the anniversary, doing their interviews. From what I've seen so far, that's come out very positive. I think we've turned the corner. It's starting to feel like 'normal' again."