Key West coral enthusiasts worried about oil spill damaging underwater treasure
Key West coral enthusiasts worried about oil ...
KEY WEST — About 12 miles north of Dry Tortugas, the crew on the Mattie Fay hauled up their shrimp catch and got oil.
Tar balls were tangled in their nets with the shrimp. There was tar on the shrimp, tar on their boots, tar on their gloves.
“We just come on in after that,” said Brian Williams, 30, a member of the Mattie Fay crew. “We didn’t drag no more. Once we saw that, we pretty much wrote it off.”
There’s no way to know if the oil the Mattie Fay ran into came from the Deepwater Horizon blowout a few hundred miles away, but the boat’s captain isn’t taking a chance. At a time of year when the Mattie Fay is usually shrimping off the coasts of Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, they’re shipping home to Jacksonville on Florida’s east coast.
Fishermen who follow shrimp and fish around the Gulf aren’t making the money they usually do this year, and those who chase other catches – like the famous Keys lobster – are worried that the tens of thousands of dollars they’re investing to get ready for the season might go to waste.
The Coast Guard hasn’t had any reports of tar balls in the water, said Anna Dixon, a Key West-based Coast Guard lieutenant junior grade.
A crew cleaned up about 40 tar balls on Dry Tortugas islands over the weekend, and those have been sent to a lab for testing.
Tar balls found previously on Dry Tortugas were tested and weren’t from the oil spill.
“I caught a third as many shrimp down here in this pond as I did last year up there around Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana,” said Leon Ree, 40, who captains the Mattie Fay, which has been docking at a marina on Stock Island. “Now, we’re leaving. I seen the sign of that tar out there the other day and I don’t want to get trapped.”
At the docks in the Florida Keys, the blazing, noonday sun beats down on the decks of the Mattie Fay. A crew member sews green shrimp nets with a knife and a fine piece of rope. They keep the shrimp below, down a rectangular hole called the fish hole.
The air down there is crisp and cold. Ice chips flake off freezer coils on the ceiling, sparkling in the sunlight that streams through the fish hole. About 100,000 pounds of shrimp are stacked in green mesh bags. Usually there’s more, but this catch was interrupted by the tar balls.
The Mattie Fay has been docked at Fishbusterz Fisheries on Stock Island, just north of Key West, since January. Usually they’d only be in Key West until March.
Captain Ree called the BP hot line Monday morning, and said he was asked if he lost money. He said he responded that he’s been shrimping, but making just a third of what he made last year.
“She didn’t even want to take my claim,” he said, shaking his head. “Even though I could be over there making three times the money.”
Fishing goes in cycles, and fishermen get paid based on how much they catch. Usually, they go from one spot to another, following the shrimp. But not this year. This year they’re heading back to a place where the catch isn’t as good, but they know there won’t be oil in their nets.
Meanwhile, a few hundred feet from the docks, two men work on lobster traps on a slice of land between the road and mangroves. A stench hangs in the humid air, a putrid smell of rotting flesh.
When you ask about the smell, the men laugh. “It’s not us!” they joke. It’s the cow-hide bait they’re wiring into the lobster traps. They work for an independent local company, and they’re readying the Keys lobster traps for the start of the season Aug. 1.
Surrounding them are 2,000 wooden lobster traps stacked 10 feet high, and mountains of rope.
Inee Johannesson, 65, works quickly, hefting the 75-pound wooden traps onto a workbench. He pokes a hole into a piece of cow hide, attaches a wire to it and wires it into the trap. That’s the stuff that smells rank after a few days sitting in the sun.
The wooden traps have concrete in the bottom for weighting, and they’re 32 inches long, 22 inches wide and 15 inches high. In the top, there’s a piece of black plastic like a large-mouthed funnel for the lobsters to swim into, and a door for the fishermen to open and get the lobster out.
Johannesson grew up in Iceland, and his dad was a fisherman there. Fishing took him to Alaska for crab, and then down to the Keys – where he stayed because he likes the warm weather, he said, smiling. But today isn’t just warm, it’s hot, and he works shirtless, baiting trap after trap.
When Johannesson is done baiting, Jerry Montague, 54, lifts the traps and carries them into a shady patch of dirt. He ties ropes onto one end, knotting it on both sides. It’s called the bridle, and it’s used to attach the traps together on the ocean floor.
The two men go out on a ship called 2nd Destiny to lay the traps and bring them up, hopefully filled with Keys lobster. Their employer specializes in live lobster, so they keep them alive in a tank on board and then sell them.
At about 1 p.m., their boss and the company owner, Adam Disson, pulls up. He owns AJD Marine and a stake in a nearby marina on Stock Island, Safe Harbour. The company fishes for lobster, stone crab and fish, and also does transportation and salvage.
“My thoughts are, I’m pretty much screwed for the rest of my days,” Disson said. “It seems to me that everyone’s looking at the here and now, but I’m looking three to five years from now when all that stuff settles on the bottom and in the estuaries and the marshes and in all the places we don’t even know about.”
Disson, 46, grew up in Key West, fishing the waters with his father, who was also a fisherman, and he’s seen how pollution can affect marine life, he said. He talks about how nutrients cause algal blooms, and how it kills the fishing in once prolific waters.
Disson just spent $30,000 on traps and equipment for the coming lobster season, and he’s worried that if the oil comes closer, he might not even get to place them.
It bothers him that the officials keep saying that the oil is 450 miles away _ that, because it’s that far, it won’t hurt the Keys. He thinks it will. He’s worried about the dispersants they’re dumping in the water and the long-term pollution throughout the Gulf.
“I fish 200 miles away from here all the time; we fish way offshore and everything we chase moves around the Gulf,” he said. “It’s going to be a very long impact. Maybe we’ll be OK this year, but in three years, who knows? And there are going to be thousands of fishermen like me. Hundreds of thousands.”
These men make their living off the water, and that way of life is already under siege from all sides: Competition from overseas fisheries, fishing regulations, ever-rising costs and environmental problems.
Oil is another potential threat – and a serious one.
“It’s scary, man,” said David Ipock, 32, standing on the deck of the Chasity Brooke, the 95-foot shrimp boat he works on. “We don’t know what’s going to happen. If it comes down here it’s going to hurt us. It’s already hurt us.”
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SPECIAL REPORT FROM THE KEYS: Here's more from Daily News journalists Katy Bishop and Manuel Martinez as the Keys prepares for possible effects from the oil spill.
Just off Key West is a treasure trove, but it’s not the X-marks-the-spot kind of treasure. Coral reefs off the Keys provide diverse and important habitat for hundreds of thousands of marine species, and one of those reefs is America’s only great barrier reef – the third largest in the world. The reefs are already at risk from other threats, so with oil still spewing into the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon spill, scientists, community members and business owners are worried. Reefs have been declining at an alarming rate for the last 25 to 30 years, said Billy Causey, Southeast Regional Director for the National Marine Sanctuary Program, and former superintendent of the Florida Keys marine sanctuary.
Photo by KATY TORRALBAS // Buy this photo
No imminent danger. Those three words were repeated again and again at a Key West city commission workshop Saturday morning. Experts from the Coast Guard, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and British Petroleum spoke to about 150 people. “It’s changing daily what is on the water up there,” said Capt. Pat DeQuattro, the Coast Guard Sector Key West commander. DeQuattro spoke about the Coast Guard’s plans, and how they have been preparing to respond if oil enters the Keys. The room’s wooden audience seats were nearly filled with adults and a few children at the two-hour-long meeting at Old City Hall on Greene Street in Key West. Other people sat and stood around the edges of the room.
Trash and oil just don’t mix. Volunteers gathered Saturday morning with kayaks and canoes at Little Torch Key, about 30 miles northeast of Key West, for a pre-oil shoreline cleanup. If oil washes ashore, any trash tangled in the mangroves or washed up on land becomes hazardous waste, said Chris Bergh, director of coastal and marine resilience for Nature Conservancy of Florida.
Mayonnaise, dish soap and kiddie pools might seem like unlikely weapons in a battle against oil. But soap cleans the feathers of oiled birds, mayonnaise helps wipe oil from sea turtles’ skins, and kiddie pools can house turtles that can’t swim in oil-contaminated waters. The turquoise waters off the environmentally sensitive Florida Keys are safe from oil for now, but no one knows for sure what will happen in the coming days.
Photo by MANUEL MARTINEZ // Buy this photo
The party continues on Duval Street, oil or no oil. But ask about it and people have lots of opinions – some well-articulated, and others a little slurred. Merchants are worried that news of tar balls on the beaches, even though they’re not connected to the spill, will drive tourists away, and those who love to eat, drink and be merry in Key West are worried that their favorite vacation island will suffer.