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Gulf Fishing: Oil Spill To Shut Down 19 Percent Of Area, More Than Double Original Closure

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PENSACOLA BEACH, Fla. — The sign outside the Pensacola Beach marina says "We're Still Fishing," but that's not really true.

The federal government announced Tuesday it was nearly tripling the size of an area in the Gulf of Mexico that's closed to fishing because of a massive oil spill off the coast of Louisiana.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said it had closed nearly 46,000 square miles, or about 19 percent of federal waters.

That's up from the 7 percent of the Gulf that's been closed to fishing boats since shortly after an offshore oil rig exploded April 20, killing 11 workers. Rig operator BP PLC estimates that the blown-out well has leaked more than 5 million gallons.

The spill has scared off charter fishing customers at the marina here, even though the water they'd normally trawl is still open. The 30 boats were almost all tied to their slips Tuesday and Jerry Andrews, the captain of the Entertainer, had the dock to himself.

"Usually you'd see 15 or 20 people walking up and down out here asking about the fishing. Three-fourths of these slips would be empty," said Andrews, a Pensacola native who has been fishing here for 34 years.

The expanded ban covers an area that starts near the Louisiana coast and moves southeast in a diagonal line. From Mississippi to Pensacola, the ban starts about 30 miles offshore. It begins moving away from shore at the Florida-Alabama border. At its eastern end south of Apalachicola, about the midpoint of the Florida Panhandle, the ban starts about 160 miles offshore.

Andrews said before the spill he was getting between 30 and 40 calls and e-mails a day asking about chartering his boat and his customers were catching their full quotas of vermilion snapper, triggerfish, amberjack and grouper.

But in the month since the spill, he gets hired for one or two trips a week, tops. Most of his customers, who come from Alabama and Georgia, are now going to the Carolinas.

He said BP, as part of its plan to help coastal businesses harmed by the spill, has paid him $5,000 and the oil giant has promised further help, but he doesn't know when that's coming.

To Harlon Pearce, chairman of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board, the latest closure is as much a public relations problem as an impediment to business. He stressed that seafood from the areas not closed is still available and safe to eat. Roughly 60 percent of the state's oyster production areas were still open, Pearce said, and he expected the expanded federal closure to affect fishermen working off the Alabama and Mississippi coasts more than those from Louisiana.

Then there was Florida. Fifty miles to the east of Pensacola, a sign outside the Panhandle tourist hub of Destin welcomes visitors to "The World's Luckiest Fishing Village." Generations of families have gone on fishing excursions while vacationing along the white sandy beaches. The boats return each evening and display the largest snapper, grouper or other fish from the day's catch for passers-by to photograph and admire.

David Krebs, who owns a local seafood market, said the town is tired and frustrated by the continued restrictions and lack of information about the spill.

Local fishermen are catching plenty of fish in non-restricted areas closer to shore, the weather is great, the fish are healthy and the beaches are oil-free, Krebs said.

The perception that oil has already hit and seafood is unsafe has devastated the tourist-driven economy, he said.

"This is just more fear factor and hype," he said, "but if people are afraid to come on vacation here now and there was already this big wonderment about the economy anyway then the perception is everything."

Analysts said it doesn't appear the new restriction will hurt most U.S. seafood chains and retailers.

Just 2 percent of U.S. seafood comes from the Gulf, said Gavin Gibbons, spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute trade group. The vast majority is imported from fisheries around the globe.

"We do not expect to see this have an impact on your average consumer," he said. "The impact this is going to have, in terms of price and availability, is on iconic American seafood, like Gulf shrimp and Gulf oysters ... If that's what you're looking for, you're going to see increased prices."

Most finned fish, like grouper or red snapper, are culled from deeper waters that have not been affected by the restrictions so far, said Rich Jeffers, a spokesman for Darden Restaurants Inc., which runs Red Lobster and Olive Garden chains. Those restaurants can also switch from using Gulf suppliers when they buy shallow-water seafood like oysters and shrimp, Jeffers said.

"You don't want to have just once source that you're using for one certain product," Jeffers said. The restaurants are getting most of their shrimp and oysters from an area to the west of the spill, he said.

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Associated Press writers Kevin McGill in New Orleans and Christopher Leonard in St. Louis contributed to this report.

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