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Officials Worry About Oil Reaching the Florida Keys

FORT MYERS, Fla. - With computer models showing the Deepwater Horizon oil spill possibly riding the Loop Current into the Florida Keys this weekend, scientists don't know how incoming petrochemicals would affect the aquatic environment.

At the same time, commercial fishermen are worried about the future of the Keys' fishing industry.

"It's hard to predict how the spill, if it gets here, will impact our different habitats," said Sean Morton, superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. "Not every oil spill is the same. The effects depend on the condition of the oil. If it's bunker oil in direct contact with the coral reef, the effect is different from weathered tar balls."

Morton said any oil reaching the Keys will probably be tar balls. Some tar balls that washed ashore earlier this week at several locations in the Keys were not from the Deepwater Horizon spill; the source of those remains unknown.

But National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists - who said Wednesday they have detected light to very light sheens in the Loop Current, which circulates into the Gulf and takes water south to the Florida Keys and the Gulf Stream - believe any oil reaching Florida would be "highly weathered" and could evaporate. They also said the oil might never reach Florida.

But the scientists said diluted oil could appear in isolated locations in Florida if persistent winds push the current toward it.

Sensitive habitats in the Keys include mangroves, seagrasses and sandy beaches, where sea turtles and shorebirds nest. Of particular concern is the Keys' reef tract, the third largest barrier reef in the world and the core of the Keys' $2.2 billion tourist industry.

"There are a lot of questions," Morton said. "Sometimes there are acute injuries to corals, and you see an immediate impact. Sometimes the impacts are not really known for a while, years later."

Kim Ritchie, manager of Mote Marine Laboratory's marine microbiology program, has studied Keys corals for six years and said researchers can't predict what oil or tar balls would do to the reef tract.

"We haven't done this experiment before," she said. "The only thing we're equipped to say is we have years of information on the health of these corals, and we'll be able to compare and see how the corals are affected. We'll let you know after it's over."

During a record cold spell in January, large numbers of corals in the Keys were damaged or killed, especially in nearshore and mid-channel areas, and the addition of petroleum could further degrade the system.

"That's my main concern," Ritchie said. "It's already stressed, and it's upsetting to think about what might happen. There's just so much uncertainty."

Monroe County is the state's largest commercial fishery. According to preliminary data, Monroe fishermen landed 10.4 million pounds of finfish and invertebrates in 2009. Monroe's most important commercial species are spiny lobster, stone crabs and king mackerel.

"We're very much concerned," said Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association. "Finfish can sense changes in the water, like salinity or density. They say, 'Hey, this is not good,' and they swim away from it.

"But we have larval migrations of spiny lobster in the Loop Current from April through December. Those larvae settle down here. Any oil or dispersants could have a significant impact on future lobsters. If we lose that recruitment, it could wipe us out."

Kelly said that some computer models show the Loop Current flowing well west of the Dry Tortugas.

"There are plenty of opportunities for Mother Nature to change her mood," he said. "If it does get here, a lot of people say it will be gone in five days. That's not true. This is a 90-day hurricane, and we could end up with serious licks on this thing."

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