Latest Q & A Regarding the Florida Keys and the Gulf Oil Spill

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Source: Monroe County Tourist Development Council

The following questions and answers are being provided for current and potential visitors to the Florida Keys.
I heard that the Keys are in imminent danger of being affected by the oil spill.
According to officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, non-contiguous sheens of oil from the Transocean/BP oil spill are in the Loop Current. NOAA says that in the time it would take for this oil to travel to the vicinity of the Keys, it would be highly weathered and both the natural process of evaporation and application of dispersants would reduce the oil volume significantly and be transformed into tar balls. It is still unclear whether the weathered oil would actually arrive in Keys regions or bypass the area and remain either in the Loop Current or the Gulf Stream (see explanation of Loop Current below). The bulk of the spill should remain away from the Loop Current, NOAA said.
What is the Loop Current?
The Gulf Loop Current is a dynamic, clockwise warm-water current that carries water from the Yucatan Channel north to the Gulf of Mexico, then eastward and looping back down south off the Florida west coast, past the Dry Tortugas and into the Gulf Stream, also known as the Florida Current. 

I have heard that oil will definitely hit the Keys and the impacts will be devastating.
NOAA and other officials say the kind of impacts the Keys and areas on the east coast might experience would be much different than what is transpiring in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Most oil spill experts say any oil carried by the Loop Current would be more dispersed and highly weathered by the time it gets to the Keys, which is some 500 miles from the spill site. That means it is highly unlikely that large “rivers” of heavy oil would impact the Keys. The oil entrained in the Loop Current would require persistent onshore winds or an eddy on the edge of the Loop Current for it to reach the Florida shoreline. If this were to occur, the weathered and diluted oil would likely appear in isolated locations in the form of tar balls. While arrival of oil in any form is unacceptable, tar balls are “significantly less toxic,” according to Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Sole. It is also possible that one area of the Keys could be affected and others not, or that the oil residues could remain in the Loop Current and Gulf Stream and completely miss the Keys.

What about the oil tar balls that were recently found in Key West and other parts of the Keys? There was a lot of news coverage and I heard they were from the Gulf oil spill.
The U.S. Coast Guard tested all tar balls and found none were from the oil spill. Finding tar balls in Keys waters or on area beaches is not an unusual occurrence. The Keys are located along a busy commercial shipping route, with some 8,000 vessels passing by on an annual basis, and commercial vessels sometimes discharge bilge water that has oil in it. Tar balls can drift into Keys waters from many other areas, not just the northern Gulf region.

What is a tar ball?
A tar ball is a blob of oil that has been weathered after floating in the ocean. Tar ball concentration and features have been used to assess the extent of oil spills and their composition can also be used to identify their sources of origin. They are slowly decomposed by microorganisms. While not dangerous to most people, tar balls can cause allergic reactions and should only be retrieved by trained personnel. Tar balls can sometimes occur naturally and as such are not always associated with oil spills.

Can you guarantee me that oil residues will not make its way into the Keys during my vacation?
Nobody can make a long-term guarantee that residues from the Gulf Coast oil spill will or will not be in the Keys. However, at the current time, expected impacts do not seem to be a serious issue for travelers. When making reservations for accommodations and water-related activities, it may be prudent to discuss in advance any cancellation and refund policies in the event oil residues impacts the immediate area of activity.

I hear authorities have shut down fishing in the Keys.
That is not true. A large area in the Gulf of Mexico, west of Florida and the Keys, is closed. NOAA has closed a significant portion of the Gulf of Mexico to recreational and commercial fishing. The closest point of the closure to the Keys is about 80 miles to the west of Key West. But no areas of Florida, including the Keys, are under the order at this time. This means that Keys-caught seafood has not been affected and is safe to consume.

Is it safe to dive, swim and participate in other water sports in the Keys?
There are no advisories in the Keys currently in effect due to the Gulf oil spill. The Monroe County Health Department is monitoring the situation and would issue an advisory in the event of any health-related risk.
More than 40 web cams streaming live video from the Keys’ waters, shorelines and area attractions are available for view.
Click to view live streaming video of Sombrero Beach in Marathon.

I’m apprehensive about traveling to the Keys because I don’t want to lose money if oil comes and ruins my vacation.
Each property has its own cancellation policy. It is prudent to check with the hotel as well as any other Keys travel-related operator in advance to determine cancellation policies and if management will offer refunds or credits in the event oil adversely affects Keys waters.

I hear the Florida Keys and much of Florida are under a state of emergency
Twenty six of the state’s 67 counties — including Monroe County — are under a state of emergency, even though no impacts have been seen in Florida. The edict is issued so that counties can qualify for federal reimbursement funding and small business loans, if needed. Visitors continue to be welcomed to all Florida areas that are under a state of emergency.

Are there any protective actions being taken to safeguard the environment, if needed?
The U.S. Coast Guard is the lead government agency responsible for oversight of any necessary cleanup and remediation activities. The Coast Guard works in conjunction with other local, state and federal authorities to enact a 725-page area contingency plan that includes oil spill response actions. Some of the other agencies involved are NOAA’s Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, the Department of the Interior, Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Monroe County Emergency Management. All are operating under a Unified Command, guided by the Florida Keys Area Contingency Plan. Assessment and cleanup crews have been mobilized to mitigate tar balls, or any other unexpected effects. Currently, no protective actions are interrupting water- or land-related visitor activities in the Florida Keys.

When will this be over?
Officials don’t know for sure. The outcome and timing depend on when leaks at the Transocean/BP well site can be plugged or effectively contained and how effective current mitigation efforts are in containing the oil already in the northern Gulf of Mexico.  

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