Patrick Banks, a marine fisheries biologist, laments the feeling of many of his colleagues who are studying effects of the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. His job is to keep commercial fishermen along Louisiana’s coastlands informed about closures of fishing grounds caused by the oil.
With large plumes of oil streaking for miles beneath the surface of the Gulf and heavy oil migrating into fishing areas, conditions often change hourly.
“It’s hard too know what to tell fishermen,” says Banks from his office at the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries in Baton Rouge. “There’s nothing I can say to make them feel better.”
Scores of marine biologists and other experts are documenting, gathering samples, testing waters and testing fish, oysters and shrimp in laboratories to understand the impact of the world’s largest oil spill.
Banks focuses on the impact to the large oyster grounds in shallow water across hundreds of miles of the Louisiana delta.
“Oil is currently spreading westward across the coast,” he says. Oil has drifted to the west from Louisiana’s Chandeleur Islands just east of the mouth of the Mississippi river to Barataria Bay and the marshlands of Terrebonne Parish, among the country’s most important and fragile marine eco-structures and miles of historic oyster beds.
Documenting the impact, Banks says, is a tremendous effort … and expensive. 70 biologists at his state department, alone, are testing samples and coordinating precautionary fishing ground closures with the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals.
The overriding concern is for the safety … to protect public health from seafood harvested from these waters. Samples of fish, shrimp and oysters are sent to labs for examination of hydrocarbon levels.
Fishing grounds are constantly being opened and closed, he says, requiring close communication with commercial fishermen.