Impact of oil spill just beginning, Kennesaw State researcher says

While tar balls -- gooey blobs of oil ranging in size from dimes to softballs -- began washing up on the seashores of Florida's slender barrier islands, Troy Mulcher, a marine biologist from Kennesaw State University, and two students spent Saturday snorkeling over sea grass beds behind one of the thinnest islands at Gulf Islands National Seashore.

"So far, we have seen no signs of the oil on this side," Mulcher said. "But I don't know how long we expect that to last."

The drift is inevitable. Oil has been spewing out of the broken well head at an estimated 800,000 gallons a day for nearly seven weeks. The Gulf Coast has never seen anything on the scale of this spill, Mulcher said, and no one knows how many days, weeks or months the drifting plumes of oil will continue to flow on tides and winds. There are still too many unknowns, including the effects on the sea grasses he studies.

Why should someone from Atlanta care if the oil makes its way into the sounds and bayous?

"If you like crab or shrimp or fish, you should care," Mulcher said.

The beds of sea grasses that Mulcher and students Rachel Mactavish and Viet Nguyen have been studying as part of a long-term project are the nurseries for many forms of life that create a healthy ecosystem and provide food for restaurants and tables.

"And what are you going to do if you like to come down here to fish or vacation with your family? How comfortable are you going to feel getting in the water?" he asked.

Okaloosa and Escambia counties, which make up a large section of Florida's Panhandle, now have special sections for dealing with the oil spill on their Web sites, including what to do if you make contact with it.

They recommend thorough washing and not allowing children in the water if it gets that oily rainbow sheen on the surface. That has not yet been seen along the Panhandle, though the tar balls mar some beaches.

But the real impact is just beginning to touch the state and counties whose economic lifeblood is tourism and seafood.

Bob Robicheaux, the chairman of the Department of Marketing, Industrial Distribution and Economics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Business, said the trickle-down effects of the oil spill have not hit yet.

Fishermen are out of work. They won't buy equipment or fuel. The tourist industry is already flailing as thousands of people are canceling their reservations. Those taxes will not be paid to state and county governments. And no one knows how long this will last.

"There is such a volume of oil, this is going to go on for many, many months," Robicheaux said.

Mulcher said sea grasses were already declining because of other pollutants in the waters. With his research, he should be able to measure the long-term effects of the oil and the threat it poses to the ecosystem.

"It has the potential to be a really big problem, obviously," he said.

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