PENSACOLA, Fla. — Anglers hoping to hook blue marlin, tuna, swordfish, mackerel and other prizes catches in sport fishing tournaments along the Gulf Coast are mostly out of luck because of the massive oil spill fouling the waters.
At least a dozen tournaments have been canceled. It’s not only costing fishermen a chance to win nice purses, but organizers, bars, restaurants are out thousands of dollars.
Kevin Sluder, chairman of Pensacola’s July 4th International Billfish Tournament, called off the 40th annual version because the federal government has closed almost a quarter of the Gulf to fishing because of the five-week-old spill.
"I’m literally sick to my stomach thinking about this. I just hope they get it cleaned up and we aren’t talking about this being canceled again next year," said Sluder, 32, and a Pensacola-area native who grew up fishing the Gulf with his father, a former tournament chairman.
Gulf waters are home to mammoth fish, prized by contestants in all the tournaments. Just two years ago, the top catch in the Pensacola tournament was a 751-pound blue marlin and an 891-pounder was once caught. The big fish are displayed at the end of the city’s Palafox Pier for onlookers to photograph before the sunsets and the fireworks break over Pensacola Bay.
But since an explosion aboard an oil rig on April 20 that killed 11 workers, a blown-out well has spewed more than 7 million gallons of crude into the water, tournament sponsors have no choice but to call off their contests.
Large mahi and whaoo are normally found off the sea shelf in blue water near the site of the explosion, said Scott Delaney, the club’s vice president of tournaments for Alabama’s Mobile Big Game Fishing Club. The big fish feed on smaller ones, which feed off the complex ecosystems formed around the drilling rigs, he said.
Fisherman spend hours making their way more than 100 miles from the coast and spend days fishing.
His tournament, scheduled for this weekend, has been kicking off the season for 34 years. It was canceled in early May.
The cancellations will hit businesses all over the region that cater to fishermen.
"It’s just like the food chain there in the Gulf, you’ve got that same economic food chain here on the shore. You got the captains, the marinas, so much impact," Delaney said.
Danny Pitalo, a tournament organizer who owns two fishing supply stores in Biloxi, Miss., is holding a cobia tournament this weekend that has postponed three times since mid-April. He expects about 60 to 70 participants, down from more than 100 most years. He said cobia, grouper, amber jack and red fish can still be caught close to shore.
But he had to cancel the city’s annual billfish tournament, which had been scheduled for the weekend of June 12. It was to be the first time the tournament had launched from Biloxi since Hurricane Katrina wiped out the marina in 2005.
The tournament holds the Gulf Coast record for the largest blue marlin at 1,045 pounds. Pitalo said the huge fish was caught near where the rig exploded.
"That was a real hot spot," he said, laughing.
Delaney worries about what will happen once the leak is stopped and cleanup begins.
"I’m not a scientist but I know there is going to be such a trickle-down effect because the ecosystem is so diverse from bottom to top," he said. "The blue marlin might be OK, but the fish it feeds on and the fish that fish feeds on all the way down. I think it’s just going to be devastating."