Oil Spill: NOAA Doubles Gulf Fisheries Closure Area

ROBERT, Louisiana, May 18, 2010 (ENS) – Effective tonight, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is nearly doubling the size of the area closed to fishing in the Gulf of Mexico due to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco told reporters by teleconference today that the area closed to fishing will total 45,728 square miles and represents 19 percent of the entire Gulf of Mexico federal waters. Currently, about 10 percent of the gulf is closed to fishing.

“Acting with an abudance of caution,” said Lubchenco, “this expansion is part of NOAA’s effort assure seafood safety.”

NOAA and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are carrying out a joint plan for sampling seafood both inside and outside the closed areas and at dockside to ensure that seafood contaminated with oil from the spill does not reach consumers.

According the latest trajectory map that NOAA issues daily, the oil spill from the broken wellhead about 40 miles southeast of Louisiana now covers 78,000 square miles of the gulf.

Darker areas of oil are visible in the Gulf of Mexico waters near the mouth of the Mississippi River. May 10, 2010. (Photo by SkyIMD, Inc.)

The spill results from an oil well blowout that caused an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon April 20. The rig sank on April 22 leaving the wellhead 5,000 feet below the surface open and spilling oil at a rate between 5,000 and 100,000 barrels per day. The exact flow rate is uncertain and is part of an ongoing argument.

Lubchenco explained that a “tendril of light oil” from the spill has been transported close to the Loop Current, which could carry the oil to the Florida Keys and up the Atlantic coast.

Part of the Gulf Stream, the Loop Current is a warm ocean current that flows northward between Cuba and Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, moves north into the Gulf of Mexico, then loops west and south before exiting to the east through the Florida Straits, the L-shaped channel between southeastern Florida and the Bahamas, and the Florida Keys and Cuba.

Dr. Lubchenco said both the locations of the Loop Current and the oil spill are “dynamic” meaning that they move around daily. NOAA is conducting a special aerial observation today and will drop sensors to find location of the current.

“The oil is increasing likely to beome entrained in the Loop Current,” said Lubchenco. “It could take between eight and 10 days to reach the Florida Straits,” she said.

“When that happens, persistent onshore winds could bring oil to the Florida shore. Natural processes such as evaporation and dispersion will reduce the amount of oil reaching the shore and the remaining oil could be composed of emulsified streamers and tarballs,” Lubchenco said.

Some tarballs have already washed up onshore in Florida’s Key West, and Lubchenco said NOAA sent teams to collect those tarballs and they are now en route to a lab in Connecticut for analysis. “Some tarballs are not from the BP spill,” she said. “Some are from other sources, but it is safe to say the Keys tarballs are an example of what might happen sould oil become entrained in the Loop Current, a possibility we are anticipating and preparing for.”

Dr. Lubchenco said there is no indication yet if the oil might impact another country. She said the United States and Mexico are sharing information thru the MEXUS plan, an agreement of cooperation signed in 1980 that provides a framework for response to pollution incidents that pose a threat to the waters of both countries.

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