ST. PETE BEACH, Fla. — Amid pleas to emphasize that Florida's beaches are clean, and its fishing so far unaffected by a giant Gulf oil spill, Florida officials said Wednesday that they are ready if the oil comes toward the state's southwest coast.
After a meeting of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, chairman Rodney Barreto said he was confident that “everything is being done” that could be done to prepare for what may lie ahead.
Based on the most recent data late Wednesday, the southeast tip of the slick lay about 300 miles from Tampa Bay, said John Ewald, public affairs specialist for the National Ocean Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Tar balls, which are weathered oil, were found off Key West, but were unrelated to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that began last month after a fire and explosion at BP's drilling rig off Louisiana, said Capt. Tim Close, commander, U.S. Coast Guard Sector St. Petersburg, leader of a unified command composed of state, federal and BP officials.
“Locally, we haven’t seen any impact to any coast on the west coast of Florida,” he said. “The likelihood remains low we’ll be impacted,” he said of the 400 miles of shoreline in his purview along Florida's Gulf coast.
A team including Manatee, Sarasota and Pinellas county environmental experts has been asked to take samples of sea grasses, oysters and sediments to test for the presence or absence of oil products in Sarasota and Tampa Bays, said Charlie Hunsicker, director of the Manatee County Department of Natural Resources, after the briefing.
The team will be working with officials of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which will coordinate sampling, he said. It is designed to document conditions prior to any oil washing up from the spill, should oil eventually migrate to the Tampa Bay area, he added.
Hunsicker’s comments after the meeting echoed those of Timyn Rice, unified command on-scene coordinator, who had also discussed sampling efforts during the briefing, concluding, “If we were to be impacted here, we’d be in the very good position to evaluate the extent of impact, and move toward restoration if we had to do that.”
Manatee officials have forwarded a map listing approximately 48 sites they think should be considered for monitoring, according to Hunsicker. Those sites would be in addition to beach sampling that DEP officials also are planning, he said.
Among those testifying after the commission’s official briefing at the TradeWinds resort were operators of various seabird sanctuaries and rescue groups. They pleaded for better information for and coordination of volunteers.
“We need to get information out to local wildlife and conservation groups,” said Michelle Glean Simoneau, marketing and public relations coordinator for Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, located in Indian Shores. “Maybe we could get into the loop about how to be better prepared.”