Fishing In Areas Affected By San Francisco Bay Oil Spill Halted

Wednesday, November 14th 2007, 7:34 am
By: News On 6

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ Fishermen here are packing up and heading home after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger suspended all commercial and sport fishing in areas affected by last week's San Francisco Bay oil spill.

The decision likely will make the biggest dent in the highly anticipated commercial season for Dungeness crab, which was scheduled to start in the bay Thursday but has now been postponed for at least 2 1/2 weeks amid health concerns.

The delicacy, available up and down the West Coast, is enjoyed both by tourists and residents who serve crab alongside the turkey with their Thanksgiving dinner.

``It will set us back quite a bit,'' said Art Romine, 38, a crabber who planned to return home to Newport, Ore., after hearing about the suspension Tuesday.

``We can't be bringing in crabs that are possibly toxic,'' he said. ``That wouldn't be good for the market at all. People don't want to buy toxic food.''

The 58,000-gallon spill occurred when a cargo ship suffered a gash in its hull after colliding with the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in heavy fog last week. The governor promised to investigate the cause of the spill and the Coast Guard's response.

The pilot of the ship said he immediately reported the presence of oil in the water, but cleanup crews didn't arrive on the scene for nearly 90 minutes. A Coast Guard log places a skimming vessel at the scene in 80 minutes.

Coast Guard officials defended their response as ``by the book,'' but concede mistakes in their communication with the public. Initial reports set the spill at just 140 gallons; the Coast Guard waited hours after learning it was much larger before notifying local officials.

Federal prosecutors are conducting a criminal probe and have interviewed members of the crew about the events leading up to the crash. The harbor pilot who was guiding the ship through the bay toward open water has not been subpoenaed in that investigation, his lawyer said.

A day after the spill, the governor praised the Coast Guard for taking ``immediate action.'' But speaking Tuesday, Schwarzenegger seemed to change course.

The oil spill was the result of ``unbelievable human failure,'' he said. ``Then on top of it, it takes that long to react to the oil spill so by the time the next day comes around, the oil is all over the bay.''

Later, after a briefing by Coast Guard officials at their command center, Schwarzenegger sidestepped questions about whether he was satisfied with the agency's response.

``I'm not an investigator,'' he said.

He did pledge a thorough investigation ``to see also if we as a state can do more in order to prevent those kind of accidents.''

``Believe me, we will ask the tough questions that need to be asked,'' Schwarzenegger said.

At Clipper Cove on Treasure Island, more than a dozen cleanup workers in white Hazmat suits worked on their hands and knees, painstakingly skimming thin layers of sand from the beach with hand trowels. By midday, Peter Cabral of the cleanup company Emergency Response Group said, crews had filled about 125 bags with oil and other debris just from Clipper Cove.

Similar cleanup efforts continued across the region.

The start of the commercial crab season in the area was postponed until Dec. 1, or until state health and wildlife officials deem it safe to reopen the fisheries.

Crab fishermen voted Saturday to ask the governor for the postponement because of concerns that crabs could be contaminated by ocean and bay water used to keep the crustaceans alive on boats after they're harvested from the sea floor.

Officials say it's the first fishing ban stemming from an oil spill in California. There's no evidence that seafood has been affected by the spill, but officials wanted to prioritize the public's safety, said Steve Edinger, assistant chief of the Department of Fish and Game.

Schwarzenegger also ordered the state Department of Public Health to determine whether people can become sick if they eat seafood caught in areas impacted by the spill.

The suspension will be an economic hardship for many fishermen, especially crabbers from Oregon, Washington and California's distant North Coast. The Bay Area crab fishery attracts out-of-town fishermen because it opens two weeks earlier than larger fisheries farther north.

``We're going to go home broke,'' said Jason Morford, 38, of Newport, Ore. ``We're going to be in the hole.''