The Orange County, Calif., offshore oil spill, which has unloaded at least 126,000 gallons of crude into the ocean, threatens the local fishing industry and locals who depend on it for their livelihoods, according to experts.
Authorities have temporarily shut down commercial and recreational fishing in the region's fisheries for an area that spans about 20 miles from the northern border of Huntington Beach south to Dana Point. The oil leak, according to government records, was first noticed last Friday and officially investigated by the U.S. Coast Guard Saturday morning. The CEO of Amplify Energy, the company that operates the affected offshore oil platform, named Elly, said it’s possible an anchor from a cargo ship struck and ruptured the pipeline, affecting Newport Beach, Laguna Beach and Huntington Beach.
The beaches could be closed for weeks or longer, to the detriment of the local economy. Commercial and recreational fishing, an important local industry, has been shut down.
Southern California has a large population of immigrants, many of whom work in the fishing industry. Orange County is 34 percent Hispanic or Latino and close to 22 percent Asian American, according to latest census data.
Locals say it’s common to see people, especially from the immigrant communities, out fishing recreationally with friends and families throughout the beach area.
“For the most part, they come down with their families, and they fish and they catch a few fish and they take it home for dinner,” said Alex Bauer, who grew up in Huntington Beach. “I would think it would be very hazardous because now those fish are going to be contaminated. Who knows how long that’s going to stay in the system?”
Experts agree. “The concern is, as this oil is hanging out, and these fish are ... in and around this oil and/or consuming prey items that are exposed to this oil, that this might be a disproportionate exposure for some of our most disenfranchised groups, or our least powerful groups,” Sean Anderson, professor and chair of the Environmental Science and Resource Management Program at Cal State University Channel Islands, told Yahoo News.
Anderson has been working on oil spills and oil releases since 1990, including the Refugio oil spill in Santa Barbara County, Calif., the Exxon Valdez in Alaska and the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. He has mostly studied the ecological impact, but in recent years he has also looked at socioeconomic impacts of oil spills, especially on marginalized populations.
“A lot of our fish and a lot of our shellfish, they will sort of sequester this stuff; they have some physiological bandwidth to sort of compartmentalize some of these substances. And that might lead to them having long-term health effects, but it means that they can survive. It means that when you and I go to eat this stuff, even though the fish is alive when we catch it, and it looks maybe healthy, it could have some toxic level of these substances sequestered,” he said.
“This is particularly of concern in our Southern California shore bass-fishing community. These are mostly folks that are fishing from the beach, fishing from the pier. It tends to be more heavily first-generation immigrants to the U.S.,” Anderson said.
An oil spill nearing a shoreline can harm nearby residents’ health even if they aren’t in the water. According to the OC Health Care Agency, oil-polluted ocean water could contain volatile components that can evaporate in the air and travel by wind and aerosols. Prolonged exposure to the chemicals could cause health issues like skin, eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches and dizziness.
“The effects of oil spills on humans may be direct and indirect, depending on the type of contact with the oil spill. People may come in direct contact with oil and/or oil products while walking in a contaminated area (e.g., beach),” Dr. Clayton Chau, county health officer for the Orange County Health Care Agency, said in an advisory.
“Currently, we are asking residents to please refrain from participating in recreational activities on the coastline such as swimming, surfing, biking, walking, exercising, gathering, etc.,” the advisory continued.
The agency added that inhaling toxic vapors or other airborne oil compound particles puts the elderly and children with respiratory diseases the most at risk.
“There’s little doubt that this has the potential to be an ecological disaster. Rest assured — we will work within the area’s elected delegation to determine the cause of the incident at Oil Platform Elly,” state Sen. Tom Umberg, whose district includes Huntington Beach and Santa Ana, said in a press release.
According to Ziprecruiter.com, commercial fishermen could make up to $61,000 annually. But the oil spill is cutting into that, as the fishing season is currently in session.
It also harms local shops that rely on the commercial and recreational fishing community.
“It’s really put a disruption in the whole ecology and economy of fishing right now,” Kom Ron, the manager of Anglers Center, a saltwater fishing store in Newport Beach, told Yahoo News.
“Fishing is a beautiful thing because it ranges [across] all kinds of socioeconomic pathways,” Ron added. “So you have people fishing the pier, fishing the beach, all the way up to people who are fishing [from] their own boat, their own yacht, to people that are going on a halfway day trip to fish for some scalp.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Bauer had to sit and look at the beach from behind caution tape instead of fishing from it.
“This is the first real major spill that we've had in quite some time — hopefully the last,” he said, before adding, “I doubt it.”