Orange County Fishermen and Women Brace for Long Oil Spill Recovery

Crude oil
Crude oil is shown in the Pacific Ocean offshore of Orange County, Oct. 3, 2021. Photo by USCG Petty Officer 1st Class Richard Brahm.

Shortly after an estimated 25,000 gallons of oil poured into the Pacific Ocean off Orange County’s coast last October, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife instituted a temporary fishing ban along 20 miles of coastline. No fishing was allowed from Huntington Beach to San Clemente, extending six miles out to sea. The unexpected closure sent fishers scrambling to mitigate losses and get traps of harm’s way.

Then the hard part began.

Until the fisheries were reopened in late November, many businesses were scraping by and in limbo, unable to move forward until they knew what’s lost and afraid that consumers will avoid their catch for years to come.

Lobsters Get a Lashing

The closures came at the worst possible time for the region’s lobster anglers, who had everything primed for the October opener of the five-month season: boat repairs and maintenance paid for, traps deployed, bait ready.

“One day prior to the opening day, we are allowed to pull the traps, close the doors, put bait in them and then position them,” says Rodger Healy, president of the California Lobster and Trap Fishermen’s Association. “They shut us down the evening before bait day,” when fishermen already have invested the lion’s share of their annual expenditures to be ready for the start of the season.

Bait had to be disposed of and lobster traps relocated or pulled out, possibly rendered unusable due to contamination. It was a “catastrophic loss,” says Healy. “I depend on this—it’s probably 90% of what I make the entire year. Some years, it’s 100%.”

Over the last 10 seasons, the October catch has accounted for 33% to 52% of the total recorded lobster catch in Orange County, according to data collected by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. And these catch numbers cannot simply be replicated later in the season even if the fisheries reopen, says Healy.

“It’s not like even if they opened us up in a month that we’re necessarily going to catch those lobsters,” he remarked. “They move, the water gets colder, they’re not as active. So it’s a big financial hit to a lot of us guys.”

Contractors remove oil and debris along the shoreline
Contractors remove oil and debris along the shoreline in Huntington Beach, California, Oct. 7, 2021. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Janessa Warschkow.

Seeking Compensation

“The lobster fishery is clearly the commercial fishery that is being most directly impacted today,” said Mike Conroy, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association and former fisher of the impacted waters. But “there are a number of other ones. There’s potentially rock crab, market squid—pretty much any fishery that has a history of take in that area could end up being a potential impacted.”

Steve Legere, a crab, lobster and sheepshead fisherman working out of Marina del Rey and Newport Beach, and Jack Buttler, a San Pedro-based urchin diver, are among the other impacted fishers. Both are plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit filed shortly after the spill in Santa Ana federal court against Amplify Energy Corp., the Houston-based owner of the rig, alleging economic losses.

“Due to the spill, [Buttler] is no longer permitted to harvest in the areas upon which he relies, causing significant financial hardship,” wrote attorneys for the plaintiffs. He now must drive his boat upwards of 65 miles to new harvesting grounds. Legere claims the spill “will continue to impair his ability to earn a living catching sheepshead, lobster and crab indefinitely,” the suit states, as he contends with falling market prices for his catch.

“We don’t know what the magnitude of the damages are yet because the fisheries haven’t been reopened,” Conroy remarked. “You could probably talk to a number of fishermen, they could tell you this is what they think their losses are today. But until they know, number one, when it’s going to be reopened, and then what the consumer response to that is — are people going to be fearful of consuming fish or fish products harvested in the area? It’s hard to quantify at this point in time, what even the recoverable amount is.”

Compensation settlements stemming from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil spill, which polluted the Gulf of Mexico with 205.8 million gallons of oil and 225,000 tons of methane, and cost the region’s commercial fishing an estimated $94.7 billion, were still being distributed as recently as January 2020.

Tests Dictated Re-opening

When the fisheries reopened by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife on Nov. 30, they did so based on results of tests conducted by California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) on nearshore and offshore species. The department finished collecting species samples, which take a little more than three weeks to analyze, the last weekend of October.

“We are looking to species that are known to bioaccumulate oil-related chemicals,” Susan Pleasing, Chief of the Fish Ecotoxicology and Water Sections of the OEHHA explained after the collections but before the fisheries reopening. “If they are below our level of concern, we would recommend a re-opening of the fishery. And if they are not, then we would continue our sampling protocol until they are below the level of concern.”

More businesses would have likely been impacted if the closure lasted longer.

“A lot of these businesses operate on a slim margin, and they were reliant upon [the lobster opener and other fisheries], so to the extent that we might lose some small businesses, that’s a fear as well, especially if it’s one of the supporting businesses that operate in ports and harbors: the fuel docks, the marine mechanics,” Conroy said. “All of those other businesses that that are both reliant upon our activities, and who we rely on to perform our activities.”

Orange County shoreline cleanup and assessment team
Members from the Orange County shoreline cleanup and assessment team dress in protective equipment before conducting oil spill cleanup operations along Corona Del Mar State Beach Park, California, Oct. 6, 2021. Photo by USCG Petty Officer 3rd Class Janessa-Reyanna Warschkow.

Consumer Concerns Could Linger

OEHHA notified CDFW on Nov. 29 that there’s no further risk to public health from seafood consumption in the affected area and recommended that fishing and consumption of seafood from the area resume.

Some fishermen and women, however, expressed concern that a greenlight from the state won’t be enough to make consumers feel the region’s catch is safe to eat.

“…[D]oes anyone want to eat a Valdez salmon?” Healy said, referring to the infamous 1989 Exxon Valdez supertanker oil spill off the coast of Alaska that resulted in nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil spilling into Prince William Sound off the coast of Alaska.

“It’s been decades but still, that name is synonymous with the big oil spill and tainted waters. We might be dealing with marketing issues for years to come, as well as the marketability of our businesses in areas that we fish that are currently closed.”

Quality Seafood, a market in Redondo Beach, says it has already seen an increase in its customer concern about seafood safety. It has joined the same class-action lawsuit as fishermen Buttler and Legere, which states the store has “serious concerns that the economic loss from lobsters will be enormous as recent and expected prices were predicted to be high,” and it anticipates sales dropping for a variety of other seafoods, from anchovies to red snapper.

Research indicates consumers decrease seafood consumption after oil spills. Nearly 30% of U.S. consumers tried to reduce their seafood consumption after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, according to a 2013 study by a team from Michigan State University. A 2016 study by researchers at Louisiana University—a state impacted by the spill—found more than a third of students and staff reported eating less seafood after the disaster, with concern peaking six months following the spill.

But officials with the state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment have said that they believe consistent, credible testing of the water and marine life in it will help give eaters of seafood faith that fish caught in or near the spill area are safe to eat.

“We have developed a very robust sampling plan that’s designed to instill confidence in consumers that we have tested a sufficient number of species and samples to indicate that the seafood are now safe to eat,” Pleasant said.