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Alabama Coast Battles Oil-Covered Perception

By DAVID RAINER

Capt. Joey Abruscato was in the midst of cleaning speckled trout he’d caught in Mobile Bay recently when a visitor approached the fish-cleaning table at Dauphin Island Marina.

“I was cleaning fish at the marina and the catfish and pelicans were hanging around just like they normally do,” Abruscato said. “A lady from Indiana, I think from Evansville, was taking pictures. She came up to me and said, ‘I thought all these pelicans were covered with oil.’ I just kind of looked at her. Then she said, ‘The national press has done y’all a lot of injustice because the view from up there is that everything is covered in oil.’”

At a “State of the Bay” gathering of concerned outdoorsmen and women at the Delta Fish House on the Battleship Parkway (Causeway), Abruscato expressed his concerns about the effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on coastal Alabama and the need for anglers, hunters and people who love the outdoors to return to their favorite endeavors.

“You hear all the doom and gloom – and not to undermine it because it is a bad deal – but we need to go out and do what we need to do – boat, fish, sail, whatever,” he said. “Don’t let this prevent you from doing what you like to do.

Since the oil spill, it’s been a dark cloud over me, over all of us. It’s been depressing is all I’ve got to say. Then I decided to go out and do what I love to do and that’s go out into the bay, whether to guide or just fish with friends. I’m not making light of this, but it’s time to go fishing.”

Other than being one of the captains in A-Team Fishing Adventures charter service with his brother Bobby and Chip Duepree, Joey also is a pilot boat captain.

“Between the pilot boat and fishing on charters or with friends, of the 101 days (of the spill), I’ve probably been on the water 91 or 92 days of that,” Abruscato said. “The fishing is great in Mobile Bay. I’m seeing the things you would normally see in July. There are a lot of trout. There’s not as many people fishing, but there are plenty of fish out there. So I encourage you to do that.

“I even talked to people who pull nets for bait, like the Jemisons and Chief down at (Dauphin) island and they’re seeing things in the nets that you’re supposed to see. They haven’t seen any oil. So don’t let this prevent you from doing what you love to do.”

Getting back to the perception that all shore birds along the Gulf Coast are covered with oil, Ken Rice, former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, addressed that fallacy.

Rice, who now directs the efforts to rehabilitate the wildlife affected by the oil spill out of the Unified Command in Mobile, said as bad as it, it’s not that bad.

“To date, as far as bird impacts, we’ve had about 350 alive oiled birds,” he said. “Overall, we’ve had about 750 birds impacted. When you think about it, that’s a small number. You don’t want to lose any, but it’s not a large number compared to the overall makeup for this area.”

Rice has a long history in dealing with the aftermaths of oil spills, including the enormous Ixtoc spill in the Bay of Campeche, as well as the spills that occurred in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

“The thing I can tell you is there is life after oil spills,” Rice said. “It will come back.”

Rice also praised the efforts of the organizers of the event on the Causeway, which included the Mobile County Wildlife and Conservation Association, CCA Alabama, Alabama Coastal Fishermen’s Association, Alabama Wildlife Federation, Delta Waterfowl, Ducks Unlimited and Committed for Waterfowl. Rice said that because the government can't take care of all the resources, people need to get personally involved.

“I’m glad to see all these groups come together like this,” he said. “These non-governmental organizations mean so much to efforts like this.”

When Rice joined the effort to mitigate the oil spill, his mission was to stop or reduce the impact to wildlife and habitat.

“My first fear was, ‘Oh, my gosh, all of these clean-up contractors are coming in here,’” he said. “They’re coming into sensitive areas and are going to do far more damage than the oil. You’ve seen the boats out there. And this was not the most ideal time for an oil spill. You’ve got sea turtles coming down the coast to nest. You’ve got all these bird rookeries, so there’s a lot of activity.”

Rice and his crew immediately set up a wildlife hotline (866-557-1401) with a goal to respond as quickly as possible with a goal of one hour.

“We’ve got three rehab facilities for birds, one in Gulfport, Miss., one in Theodore and one in Pensacola, Fla.,” he said. “We’ve also got turtle issues. For any marine mammal issues, we’ve got facilities in Gulfport, Fort Walton Beach and Panama City.

“The other aspect is the sensitive lands – all National Seashore and the wildlife refuges like Bon Secour, St. Mark’s and St. Vincent’s. How are you going to protect these areas with all these people on the beach? What we established was people called resource advisers. These advisers tell the clean-up crews where to walk and where the wildlife is likely to be. We have people walking in front of the machinery to make sure no turtles or other wildlife are run over. As far as I know, there hasn’t been one turtle egg broken.”

Rice said although oil on the beach is unsightly and causes much damage to the tourism industry, it is a much better place to deal with the contamination than in other areas.

“Ideally, the beach is a pretty good collection place for oil if you want to compare it to our estuaries, our marshes,” he said. “I told the captain as the oil was starting to come ashore between the west end of Dauphin Island and Petit Bois, that this is a goal-line stand. If you want to see photos of what you see in Louisiana, then let that oil get through. It’s going to get all the rookery islands, Portersville Bay and get into the marshes. We’re going to have real problems.

“From day one, we’ve tried to get the oil before it got into those sensitive areas. If it gets on the beaches, we can clean that up. Yes, it does affect tourism. But if it gets in a marsh area, what you don’t want to do is go in there and do more damage than good.”

Despite the loss of animals during the spill, Rice said those victims will further the research into the effect of contact with oil. All the carcasses have been saved so that necropsies can be performed and determine exactly what caused their demise.

“We’re going to have some residual tar ball incidents and things like that,” he said. “You’re going to have oiled birds for a few more weeks. But things will gradually taper off. Things will get back to normal. We’ll get to our fisheries and everything else. We will be here until things get cleaned up. I’ve told BP and other folks that they need to be responsible for everything that has occurred to the environment. But they’re not responsible for everything out there. There is natural mortality. That’s why we document everything and it will all come out. But it will take years.

“If there is anything positive that comes out of this spill, it’s the amount of research going into it. We’re looking at toxicity and dispersants used. This is one of the largest spills ever. They’ve never used the volume of dispersants before. We don’t know. What we do know is that oil is a hydrocarbon and it will break down in time. We’ll know all these things, but it’s going to take some time.”

PHOTO (by Billy Pope): A group of pelicans affected by the oil spill preen their feathers after going through the rehabilitation center in Theodore. After going through a cleaning process and stabilization period, the birds were released along the Alabama Gulf Coast.

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