BP Spill Closes Breton National Wildlife Refuge, Fisheries Closure Expanded
ROBERT, Louisiana, May 7, 2010 (ENS) - Crews are cleaning oil from the Chandeleur Islands, a chain of uninhabited barrier islands 50 miles long in the Gulf of Mexico that took a hit from the Deepwater Horizon spill Wednesday. The six islands form the easternmost point of Louisiana and are a part of the Breton National Wildlife Refuge.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today closed the Breton National Wildlife Refuge to the public. The agency said the closure is necessary to keep the public safe, to minimize disturbance to nesting sea birds, and to allow personnel conducting cleanup operations and recovery efforts to work safely and efficiently.

Brown pelicans on the Breton National Wildlife Refuge with a line of orange oil containment boom in the background (Photo courtesy USFWS)

The first shoreline impact of oil from the spill was confirmed late Wednesday afternoon at Breton, with oil on both sides of the southern half of the Chandeleur Islands. Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, on overflights observed sheen and emulsified oil around the islands.

Today, NOAA expanded the boundaries of the fishing area the agency closed on Sunday to better reflect the current location of the BP oil spill, and is extending the fishing restriction until May 17.

From the point about 50 miles southeast of Louisiana where the oil is still spewing from the broken Deepwater Horizon wellhead, the spill now extends approximately 4,000 square miles with about 300 square miles of heavily oiled water.

NOAA says the closed area now represents slightly less than 4.5 percent of Gulf of Mexico federal waters. The original closure boundaries encompassed less than three percent.

NOAA says many areas are still open to fishing. "The vast majority of Gulf waters has not been affected by the oil spill and continues to support productive fisheries and tourism activities," the agency said in a statement today.

NOAA Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco and her staff will continue to meet with fishermen in the oil affected area to listen to their concerns and share with them what NOAA scientists have learned about how the oil might be affecting their potential seafood catch.

"NOAA stands shoulder to shoulder with Gulf coast fishermen and their families during these challenging times," Lubchenco said. "NOAA scientists are on the ground in the area of the oil spill taking water and seafood samples in an effort to ensure the safety of the seafood and fishing activities."

She said NOAA Fisheries is working with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the states to ensure seafood safety, by "assessing whether seafood is tainted or contaminated to levels that pose a risk to human health."

According to NOAA, there are 3.2 million recreational fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico region who took 24 million fishing trips in 2008. Commercial fishermen in the gulf harvested more than one billion pounds of finfish and shellfish in 2008.

Closure details are online at: http://sero.nmfs.noaa.gov/

NOAA is working with state governors to evaluate the need to declare a fisheries disaster. The states of Louisiana and Mississippi have requested a federal fisheries disaster be declared.

While under contract to BP, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig was in the final phases of drilling a well on April 20, when an explosion occurred and the rig caught fire. Eleven of the 126 people aboard are missing and presumed dead. Deepwater Horizon sank on April 22 in water 5,000 feet deep, and the wreck is now on the seafloor about a quarter of a mile from the well.

Crews had not plugged the well before the explosion and BP's effort to stem the flow of oil from the broken wellhead have not succeeded. Oil is still gushing out unchecked at the rate of about 5,000 barrels a day. The oil slick threatens Gulf of Mexico fisheries, tourism and the habitat of hundreds of bird species.

BP engineers lower the white containment dome over the broken wellhead a mile below the surface in an attempt to stop the flow of oil. (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

BP sent a specially constructed containment dome to the scene yesterday, ready to be deployed. Once lowered to the sea bed over the broken wellhead, the next steps will be to connect the 40 foot tall steel dome, which weighs almost 100 tons, to a vessel on the surface. BP will attempt to direct the gushing oil up a pipe through the containment dome and to a drillship on the surface for collection and storage.

BP also has been drilling a relief well since Sunday May 2, but that well is expected to take some three months to complete.

Work continues to collect and disperse oil that has reached the surface of the sea. More than 260 vessels are being used, including skimmers, tugs, barges and recovery vessels.

On Thursday, Lubchenco and U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke traveled to the gulf to see cleanup efforts first hand and talk directly with state and local officials and area business leaders. NOAA fisheries representatives in the region will be meeting with fishermen this week.

BP will be hiring fishermen to help clean up from the spill and deploy boom in the Gulf of Mexico. Interested fishermen should call 425-745-8017.

BP has set up a claims hotline where commercial fishers can call to make a claim. The number to call to make a claim is 1-800-440-0858.

There is also a St. Bernard Parish Deepwater Claims Center established that will be in operation as of Saturday at 8 am, St. Bernard Parish government said today in a news release.

Fishers must call the claims hotline at 1-800-440-0858, before they can see a claims adjuster at the center. By calling the hotline, fishers will receive a claims number.

The Sierra Club is organizing a rally Saturday in New Orleans' Lafayette Square from noon to 2 pm to support gulf communities affected by the spill.

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