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Oil Spill Causing Trouble in Paradise for Hunters, Anglers, Guides
email this pageprint this pageemail usKansas City Star
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July 08, 2010

When Ryan Lambert sees thick, gooey oil roll ashore on waves from the Gulf of Mexico, he wonders how long the state known as the Sportsman's Paradise will live up to its name.

Just a year ago, he was thriving in that Louisiana setting. His Cajun Fishing Adventures business was sending out 12 charter boats a day, his lodge was always full, and he was in demand during the fall as a duck-hunting guide.

But that seems like a long time ago.

His part of the world has taken a direct hit from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that is spewing 60,000 barrels of oil into the Gulf daily.

And Lambert is fully aware that there is big trouble in paradise.

"This is a special place, a national treasure," Lambert said in a telephone interview. "What we have here, you won't find anyplace else in the world.

"I've fished and hunted here my entire life and I'm very attached to it. To see it dying before my very eyes, it makes me literally sick."

Like many others, Lambert watched his life come to an abrupt halt when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded this spring and began gushing oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Within weeks, that oil began washing ashore in Louisiana, not far from Lambert's base of operation along the Gulf.

Many of his favorite fishing waters were closed because of the spill. His charter business screeched to a halt. And every time he took a walk on the beach, he found troubling signs.

"I see thousands of dead sea clams washed up on the beaches," Lambert said. "And there's a lot of dead grass already.

"Well, the fish and ducks feed on those surf clams. And that grass is their habitat.

"To me, it shows that the Gulf is being affected from the bottom up. Everyone sees the oil floating on the surface and the wildlife that's being affected.

"But it's the oil that's below the surface that has a lot of us worried. It could affect the entire ecosystem down here."

Lambert's life already has indelibly changed. What should be his busy time of the year is now filled with idle hours. And constant worry about the future.

"It took me 29 years to build this business," he said. "Now it's all gone.

"I'm still catching fish in the areas that are still open, but there's no business. No one wants to come down here when this is going on. And I can't blame them.

"They could make plans, pay for plane fares, and get down here and find that their fishing water has been closed overnight.

"Things are changing by the day down here."

Lambert certainly isn't alone in his despair over the situation, which scientists say could become one of the greatest environmental disasters in the history of the United States.

Gulf states such as Louisiana are rich in coastal wetlands. There are thousands of acres of grass waving in shimmering marshes, a perfect setting for everything from game fish to migrating waterfowl.

More than 400 species of fish and wildlife live in the coastal setting, and the region supports a $41 billion fishing industry. In 2008, more than 3 million people took recreational fishing trips in the Gulf states.

But today, much of that is clouded by the oil that is being washed ashore.

The oil spill already has impacted 428 miles of shoreline 259 in Louisiana, 71 in Florida, 52 in Mississippi, 46 in Alabama.

The oil is believed to have already caused the deaths of 1,317 birds, 441 sea turtles and 52 mammals, with many others collected and brought to animal rescue centers.

No major fish kills have been reported yet, but biologists worry about long-term effects. Oil in the water could affect oxygen levels in water, eggs and the physiology of the fish.

Biologists also worry about the loss of habitat for both fish and wildlife. The oil that already is flowing into marshes could kill critical grass that everything from fish to birds rely on.

Officials with Ducks Unlimited, a non-profit conservation organization dedicated to preserving and enhancing waterfowl habitat, are concerned that the oil spill will affect migrating waterfowl this fall and winter. The Louisiana area that already has taken a hit supports one of the nation's largest concentrations of migrating ducks.

In the latest survey by the American Sportfishing Association, 78 percent of fishing businesses surveyed indicated that business was down an average of 56 percent from what it was a year ago.

Seventy-six percent of those surveyed said their businesses wouldn't survive without financial assistance.

Federal officials worry that 36 national wildlife refuges could be affected by the spill.

"What we have here is big nature colliding with big oil," said Larry Schweiger, president of the National Wildlife Federation. "And unfortunately, big oil will win in this collision."

The impact of the oil spill on wildlife already is being felt.

Oil-covered birds and sea turtles are being collected daily by rescuers, and a thick brown slick laps up against marsh grasses.

But the worst may be yet to come.

By late August, thousands of ducks will be streaming into coastal Louisiana, one of the nation's most significant wintering grounds for migrating waterfowl.

If oil covers many of the marshes they are accustomed to using, big problems could result.

"This is a "hold-your-breath" situation," said Tom Moorman, director of conservation for Ducks Unlimited. "The oil hits the salt marshes first. The fresh-water wetlands that the ducks use are protected.

"But if we get some hurricanes and strong winds, that oil could make its way into the fresh-water marshes. And that could cause some major problems.

"Right now, there's just a lot of uncertainty. We've never had to deal with a problem like this."

If the oil flow isn't stopped, Moorman foresees problems that would start with the bluebills.

"Thirty to forty percent of the continent's bluebills winter in this region," he said. "They will gather in huge rafts on the Gulf, feeding on dwarf sea clams.

"There's a possibility that we could see birds could pick up oil or their food source could be affected."

On the interior marshes, large numbers of gadwalls, teal, wigeons, shovelers and ringnecks also could be affected.

"I don't know if it would be so much direct mortality as it would be physiological damage or loss of habitat," Moorman said. "The impacts could be felt for years."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has discussed creating safe grounds for waterfowl to feed in coastal marshes and inland.

Conservation groups plan to work with private landowners to flood crops and open more ground to attract migrating birds away from the oil-affected marshes.

But the clock is ticking.

"We don't have a lot of time," Moorman said. "The migrants start showing up in late summer."

So what can be done?

BP, which owns the oil rig that caused the problem, has coordinated efforts to put out miles of boom to stem the tide of oil and has put gallons of dispersant in the water.

But ultimately, Mother Nature is in charge now.

This is storm season in the Gulf. The first hurricane, Alex, largely missed the oil-spill zone, though it caused containment crews valuable time on the water because of heavy waves.

The next time, people in the Gulf might not be so lucky.

"The thing that really scares us is the future," Lambert said. "Hurricane Katrina was bad, but at least we knew what we were dealing with.

"The day after our electricity was back, we were back on the water, fishing.

"After this oil spill is done, we're not sure what will be left."

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