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Wildlife & Fisheries Commission Restores Recreational Fishing to Most Coastal Waters
On Wednesday afternoon, July 14th, the Louisiana Wildlife & Fisheries Commission (Commission) held a special meeting to consider significant changes to the area closed to recreational fishing due to the BP well blowout. Since the blowout, the Department of Wildlife & Fisheries (LDWF), supported by the Commission, had been following a cautionary protocol of commercial and recreational fishing closures to assure no tainted seafood entered the market and that the health of fish consumers, including recreational anglers would be protected.
The closures were based on the presence of oil in/on the water and lasted a minimum of 7 days while samples were taken and analyzed. Finfish, oyster, shrimp and crab flesh was sampled for chemical markers and thresholds established by state and federal health agencies. If samples proved negative or detected chemical markers below threshold levels, areas were reopened, but due to frequent recurrence of oil that restarted the sampling protocol, and the uber-caution being exercised to protect the Louisiana seafood brand, the extent of the closed areas continued to grow.
Although the samples from most areas were negative and/or below the threshold for the chemical markers being examined, there was concern on the part of the LDWF and state health department that the analysis was not sufficient to detect constituents of dispersants that were feared to be taken up by the fish in concentrations that would cause adverse health effects. So, waters remained closed while markers for dispersant were determined. In the meantime, the LDWF Secretary proposed an emergency rule to open most closed waters to recreational catch and release angling. The Commission heard testimony from the public on that proposal and concluded that the support from the recreational fishing public for the rule was insufficient to warrant adoption considering the law enforcement and other management issues it raised.
While markers for dispersants were established and new sampling had begun, the EPA announced that that none of its samples in state waters detected constituents of dispersant in the sediment or water column. This testing was corroborated by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. So, with samples showing no risk from contaminants due to oil, and dispersants not present in state waters at detectable levels, the Commission, based on evidence from the sampling and the support of the LDWF, proposed reopening most of the closed waters to recreational harvest. After hearing 2 hours of testimony, the Commission adopted the rule unanimously. An announcement of the action along with images delineating the areas that still remain closed was issued by the LDWF about an hour after the meeting.
Most representatives of the commercial fishing and seafood industries speaking at the Commission meeting were in opposition to opening closed waters to recreational harvest based on the concern that a fish caught recreationally and consumed might cause someone to get sick. They feared the negative publicity of such an incident would impact the prospects of reopening commercial harvest and regaining markets for Louisiana seafood.
The federal Food and Drug Administration regulates food safety in interstate commerce and its approval is required to open closed areas to commercial fishing, but it has no authority over recreational harvest and consumption of recreationally-harvested fish. So commercial fishing in extensive areas of state waters will remain closed pending the outcome of additional sampling and efforts to have the FDA approve reopening more waters to commercial fishing.
Although most attention was directed toward health issues and sampling protocol, LDWF did explain at the outset of the meeting that fisheries monitoring plans had been developed and were being funded by BP for inshore and nearshore fisheries and that a plan for monitoring offshore pelagic species and benthic communities was awaiting approval for funding. The monitoring programs will determine the impact of the oil and dispersants on the health of the fish populations to inform future management regulations. Despite the uncertainties about short and longer-term impacts from the well blowout, LDWF does not anticipate any need to prohibit harvest or alter seasons or limits from the conservation rules currently in place. As information from the monitoring programs show the need for adjusting management regulations, those rules can be modified using emergency authority to protect the resources.
The Commission urged recreational anglers to be extra careful to avoid damaging containment boom and interfering with the response and clean-up effort.
The Louisiana Wildlife Federation presented a statement of conditional support for the recreational fishing re-openings, but after the sampling and biological information was presented at the meeting, LWF executive Randy Lanctot urged the Commission to proceed with the proposed action.
Though not mentioned at the meeting, anglers observing oiled or injured wildlife, fish kills, and other circumstances that response authorities should know about should report them by calling the numbers provided: to report oiled wildlife call (866) 557-1401; to report oiled shoreline call (866) 448-5816. If possible, photos should be taken of the observation and latitude/longitude coordinates recorded to help responders locate and resolve the problem.
The US Fish & Wildlife Service is requesting persons observing banded birds to report them to the National Bird Banding Lab. All birds rescued and released have been banded. Observations of location and condition of these birds will help determine the effectiveness of the response and help inform wildlife rescue efforts in the future. Report sightings of banded birds to the National Bird Banding Lab at http://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/bbl/default.htm .
Anglers who would like to be part of a citizen monitoring network by reporting observations of the oil impacts are invited to sign up for the NWF/LWF Surveillance Team Program at www.nwf.org/oilspillvolunteer.