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Scientists fear for the fragile ecosystem of the Florida Panhandle

BIG LAGOON STATE PARK — Life begins in the marsh and sea grasses that wind along the sandy coastline of this lagoon in Pensacola and others like it along the Florida Panhandle.

These fragile estuaries shelter or nourish many of the Gulf of Mexico's most familiar and important creatures, from black mullet to redfish, blue crabs and brown pelicans.

If oil creeping toward Northwest Florida pushes beyond the barrier island beach in the same consistency of ooze that has tarred Louisiana's delta marsh, scientists fear the impact could be felt for years, maybe decades -- and not just here in this small pocket of wetlands. The effects could potentially ripple across a complex and interconnected Gulf ecosystem that stretches hundreds of miles south into the Florida Keys.

``Loss of habitat is the No. 1 fear of every ecologist that studies plants and animals,'' said Taylor ``Chips'' Kirschenfeld, a senior scientist and division manager with Escambia County Water Quality and Land Management. ``Losing habitat will just devastate all these species for many, many years.''

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