As Oil Plumes Grow, Fishing Zones Shrink

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Jay Reeves / AP

Fishing boats sit idle at the docks of Bayou La Batre, Alabama.

There are many ways to mark the steady growth of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, now in its 44th day and counting. You can look at the satellite images of the pulsating surface oil slick — helpfully provided by the independent NGO SkyTruth if you don't quite buy BP's numbers any longer — which changes by the day. You can tabulate reports of oil sightings on shorelines and beaches — today found oil landing on the shores of Alabama and stretching near the sunny beaches of Pensacola. You can even chart the location of wild animals hit by oil; on Wednesday, the National Wildlife Federation reported that an unusually high number of sea turtles and dolphins had been turning up dead near oil-slicked areas.

But one of the smartest ways is to follow the size of the federal fishing waters that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has declared off-limits due oil. And that figure has risen dramatically: today NOAA announced that 37% of the federal waters of the Gulf were no-fishing zones. That's nearly 89,000 sq. miles — almost twice the amount of territory restricted as of May 18 — where the sea life is considered potentially too toxic to eat. "This is big time," says Doug Rader, the chief oceans scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund. "This shows the sheer amount of oil — and how far it's spreading."

The fishing restricted area is far larger than the surface oil slick, which has a radius of about 200 miles, thought it's constantly moving with the currents. Jane Lubchenco, a marine scientist and the head of NOAA, says that's because the agency draws its no-go lines both where the oil seems to be now and where it's expected to move over the next 72 hours. "The intent is to close areas where there is a reason to believe there is or will be a significant amount of oil," Lubchenco said at a press conference in New Orleans today. "We have expanded that area as the oil has expanded." And though Lubchenco said the agency would consider reopening fishing areas once tests on seafood confirmed its safety, so far the closures have only grown.

The rapid increase in the restricted area raises complex questions about what's going on with the oil beneath the surface of the water. Several independent academic research teams say they've found evidence that plumes of oil are forming and moving underwater — perhaps due to the effect of the nearly 1 million gallons of chemical dispersants the energy giant BP has used on the oil, both on the surface and at the wellhead 5,000 feet below. But BP CEO Tony Hayward has denied the existence of significant plumes, saying that what we see on the surface is essentially what we have. With more than 40 days having elapsed since the spill began, it's imperative to get hard answers — especially since underwater plumes could pose a threat to underwater coral reefs toward Florida and Cuba. "The prospect for risks to those areas seems extremely strong," says Rader.

BP's manifest interest in the nonexistence of the plumes weighed against the reports of numerous disinterested scientific parties does at least suggest where the truth lies. So too does simple arithmetic. By most estimates, the amount of oil on the surface does not add up to the amount that has been spilled, even when you adjust for what's evaporated away or been burned off. University of Georgia scientists — out to sea on a research trip to the oil spill right now — took water samples at the middle depths where the plumes are thought to be and could actually smell and see the oil.

In the face of that, NOAA seems oddly dilatory in its own response to the plumes. Lubchenco has called the University of Georgia findings "circumstantial evidence." She made her comments to the press from the launch of the NOAA research ship Thomas Jefferson, which left Wednesday on a 10-day trip to the site of the oil spill, where it will investigate the matter of underwater oil, among other questions. That means official government corroboration of what so many other researchers are finding — not to mention official government action — is at least that far away. "I'm not in denial," Lubchenco says, "but we need factual information that others can check."

But if it's not denial, it's something close, and that doesn't speak well for NOAA or Washington as a whole. "The source of reliable information on this has not been the government," says Ian MacDonald, an oceanographer at Florida State University who has been following the spill since the beginning. "It has been independent academics." A White House that has rightfully prided itself on the quality of its science should not let that happen — not during the biggest environmental catastrophe in U.S. history.