How Oil is Killing My Favorite Place on Earth

A guest post by Field & Stream Editorial Assistant Ashley Day

I've spent every summer of my life in the Florida Panhandle, visiting my grandparents who have lived in Seagrove Beach for 45 years. It is my favorite place on Earth. It is my sanctuary. Spring Break attractions and patches of rental developments have cheapened and commercialized this sanctuary, but the oil spill is powerful enough to defeat both new condos and drunk college kids. It hasn't just devalued, it has destroyed. But when people care about their environment, they advocate for it, and no one has proven this more than the local fishermen.

When I caught tidbits of community gossip circulating about BP paying charter captains to monitor the oil's whereabouts, I went looking for answers at some Destin marinas where the few lingering fishermen were weary of news crews and snooping tourists. They questioned my curiosity and expressed distaste for previous media coverage. Even when I struck up casual conversation, several captains asked whom I was going to tell. Lucky for me, mentioning Field & Stream consistently eased the tension.

I found every docked boat flying the same four-squared Vessels of Opportunity (VOO) flag. Each deck hosted piles of white bags called pom poms and sausage noodles (photo). The pom poms are small bunches of absorbent material for collecting tar balls, and the sausage noodles are long strings of tubing that absorb tar in more oily areas. The locals commonly referred to VOO as "working for BP," which probably contributed to the suspicion my camera and questions raised at the marinas. The charter boats are perhaps being unfairly linked with the enemy when in truth, the fishermen are fighting enough battles of their own.

As soon as the government declared fish in this area of the Gulf unsafe for consumption, charter operations were suspended. Deepwater Horizon Relief opened an office in Fort Walton Beach to recruit charter boat captains for VOO. After a four-hour training course for captains and certification for vessels, the boats were back on the water 8 to 12 hours a day, disposing of oil before it reached shore. They work in teams that span three miles each in waters up to seven miles offshore, because the clean-up materials are only effective in water no deeper than four feet.

"We used to troll for wahoo and sailfish and marlin," said Russell Fortner, a deckhand on several boats in the Harbor Walk marina. "Now we troll for oil."

The charter captians have little choice but to join VOO. They can't catch any fish until the government decides they're safe to eat, and they have no other source of income. Fortner's eager to fish again, but feels confident VOO will keep him busy for a while. A captain next door was more worried about the future and the lack of clarity on whether fish will be safe to eat in a matter of months or years.

Everyone I met had fished here their entire lives, weathering hurricanes, development, and the staggering economy. Now they're livelihood is drowning in uncertainty: the unpredictability of the weather, the immeasurability of the environmental effects, and the uncontrollable jurisdiction of the federal government.

The VOO operation is the Panhandle's primary protection from oil. While some locals are upset with the charter captains for essentially working for BP, these fishermen are valiantly protecting their homes and the beaches many of us have adopted as our home away from home. Charter boat captain Tres Peerson referred to working for VOO as "BP-ing." He was the only fisherman I found at the desolate East Pass Marina.

"Everybody's BP-ing now," he said. "I've been BP-ing all day."

Peerson recognized in the months to years it takes to rid the ocean of oil and quantify the damage he will likely have to move for the first time in his life. His and many other families will uproot to survive and leave this home he's fought to preserve for people like me.

"I was born and raised here," said Peerson. "I'd much rather be fishing, but I just want to save it." - Ashley Day