“I can tell you, the fishing’s good,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott recently told people gathered in Pensacola for a Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force meeting.
The Governor said he marked the anniversary of the spill catching redfish in the Gulf. But Scott must not have been hitting the same spots as Jim Cowan, professor and researcher with Louisiana State University’s Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences.
“We’ve been seeing it for months,” Cowan said.
The LSU scientist reports finding fish in the Gulf with lesions and liver issues. Not the sort of catch to brag about or throw on the dinner table.
“I’ve seen vermilion snapper with lumps on them the size of a baseball,” Cowan said. The professor’s reports are noticeably different than those from the government. A week before the June opening of red snapper season, however, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration did concede that fishermen should keep an eye open for any irregularities.
“If you do catch fish with lesions on them, you know, be careful,” said NOAA’s Dr. Walt Dickhoff.
While acknowledging reports from the academic community, Dickhoff said he saw no cause for alarm–“it looks like the normal kind of lesions”–and maintained Gulf seafood is safe to eat. He said NOAA is conducting extensive testing and has yet to find anything of concern.
Cowan first started seeing sick fish earlier this year when fishermen began bringing him their questionable catches. The specimen featured lesions in various stages. Some were only spots, with the tissue beneath soft to the touch, and others were open wounds.
“I’d never seen anything like I was seeing,” Cowan said. “So, we became concerned.”
Most of the reports of sick fish were coming from an area of the Gulf stretching from Mobile Bay to Panama City. In an effort to get better samples—specifically, fresher specimen—Cowan went fishing.
Of the roughly 300 fish caught, the LSU researcher estimates that about 10 percent showed signs of lesions or liver damage. Cowan said he did not know the cause and could not link the sick fish directly to the oil spill.
“We just know there’s a problem,” he said.
Other members of the academic community are also emerging from their Gulf ventures with disturbing reports. Locally, University of West Florida biologist Will Patterson is also reporting sick snapper. At the Florida Institute of Oceanography recently, researcher Graham Worthy told colleagues that either oil or chemical dispersants could have interrupted the food chain and led to the high number of dolphin deaths this past year.
In Gulf Breeze, marine biologist Heather Reed is working with the local fishing community. She’s asking them to bring her any questionable fish so that she might conduct further research.
“It may be bad,” Reed said, “It may not be bad.”
Cowan decided to go public with what he was seeing because of public safety concerns. Handling the sick fish can be dangerous. Anglers should specifically watch out for fish infected with Vibrio vulnificus or the more threatening Photobacterium damselae.
While these two forms of bacteria are common in Gulf waters, fish are normally able to fight them off.
“The real mystery is, the pathogens are in the Gulf all the time,” Cowan said. “The real issue becomes, why are these fish being susceptible to these pathogens when they wouldn’t ordinarily?”
If handled, infected fish could pose health risks to humans. Cowan suggested avoiding the fish.
“I would recommend just taking a pair of pliers and clipping the hook,” he said.
The Louisiana scientist invited some folks from BP out fishing recently. He said they acknowledged there may be something going on, but stressed that there wasn’t a connection with the oil spill.
“They’re aware of the sensitivity of the issue,” Cowan said.
HAYWARD FULFILLS PROMISE Mayor Ashton Hayward is calling for a full-scale study of the City’s purchasing and contracting practices relating to minority-owned businesses in the area.
Mayor Hayward said in a press release that he was fulfilling a campaign promise and doing what was right for the entire community.
“I’m proud to sponsor this initiative so we as a community can get some real data on where our tax dollars are being spent, and to develop some solutions to make sure that all of our vendors and contractors have an opportunity to build their business and expand their ability to create jobs,” said Hayward.
“I’d like to thank my West Side team of advisors, especially Pastor LuTimothy May, for his tireless advocacy of this issue,” Hayward continued. “Pastor May has been a champion for the issue of inclusion in our community, and I’m proud to have him as a part of my team that’s moving our City forward–for all of us.”
Known as a disparity study, the project will review the past purchasing and contracting history of the City, evaluate past minority business inclusion efforts, and assess local and regional business demographics. Based on these results, the study will recommend a set of legally defensible purchasing and procurement reforms to remedy any disparities for minority business inclusion.
Community leader Lumon May has led the fight for a disparity study since 2007. That year, the City of Pensacola refused to fund a full study. Instead, they paid for a “pre-disparity study,” which found that the participation of minority businesses, especially African-American-owned businesses, in city contracts was lower than expected.
That study, and the citizen panel that reviewed it, recommended some minor contracting reforms to give minority businesses more access to City contracts. The citizen panel also recommended the City undertake a full disparity study. The full disparity study will allow the City to take more aggressive action to assist minority businesses in getting City contracts.
Hayward said this was an important step toward improving the local economy and creating jobs for residents in the area.
“I view this as a prime example of how we can improve our local economy by helping our local businesses win contracts and by ensuring that we as a City and a community are creating a playing field that gives everyone a chance to succeed,” said Hayward.
“The reality is that the more jobs we can help small businesses create, that puts more money in people’s pockets and more money gets turned around in our local economy. So while this initiative is geared towards helping minority businesses, those business owners and their employees spend their money with other businesses across the community, so we all benefit,” said Hayward.
The Pensacola City Council will take up the issue of the disparity study at its Committee of the Whole Meeting on Monday, June 20 at 3:30 p.m. at City Hall’s 2nd Floor Hagler-Mason Conference Room.
PRIVATIZING JUVIE Escambia County Administrator Randy Oliver told the IN that he is looking into privatizing the county juvenile detention center. The state is charging the county $280 per day for each person in the regional center.
“I can put someone up in the Ritz Carlton for that,” said Oliver. He hopes to have approval for a RFP soon.
COUNTY BUDGET CRISIS AVOIDED Escambia County Administrator Randy Oliver stopped by the IN offices to discuss the 2011-12 budget. The good news is the budget is balanced without a tax increase despite a projected 3.5 percent decrease in property taxes.
County employees will have to pay 3.1 percent of their retirement, but Oliver is recommending a 3.1 percent across-the-board pay increase so that employees will only take a minimal hit on their take-home pay.
“We are only able to do this because our legislators worked hard to make sure that the savings in Florida Retirement System contributions stayed with the county,” said Oliver. Originally, Gov. Scott had the savings being used to help the state balance its budget.
Employees will be contributing more to their health insurance with the goal of getting it to an 80/20 ratio in a few years. The increase will range from $1.60 monthly for single coverage to $22 monthly for full family coverage.
Oliver is recommending that one paid holiday be eliminated. He will cut 17 positions that are currently unfilled and add three new ones—web master, voice over IP person and Equestrian Center manager—a net 14 positions cut, saving $560,000.
Funding for Escambia Community Clinics, PEDC, NW Florida Comprehensive Services for Children, West Florida Regional Planning, Veteran’s Services and ECAT will stay the same–with ECAT getting an adjustment for fuel cost increases.
The library system will be hit with a 3.5 percent reduction, which is the same cut other county departments have been hit with. The library system is managed by the City of Pensacola.
The Pensacola Chamber of Commerce will get $400,000 for its Vision 2015 $350,000 from electric franchise fees and $50,000 from the general fund. Other outside agencies, including United Way, will be hit with a 15-percent cut. General fund contingency reserves will remain at 2010-11 levels, which is about 7 percent of general fund revenues.