California Fishermen Can't Access Nearly 12 Miles of Water 1 Month After Oil Leak

Four weeks after the Southern California oil leak, fishermen are still prohibited from fishing in the area as state environmental health experts study the safety of fish in the polluted waters, the Associated Press reported.

California has prohibited fishing in the Orange County coast area that ranged about 6 to 12 miles, where an undersea pipeline leaked at least 25,000 gallons of crude oil into the ocean on October 2 off Huntington Beach.

State environmental health experts are still conducting studies to determine if fish and shellfish in the area are safe for human consumption. These studies are expected to last weeks or longer.

According to Susan Klasing, chief of the fish, ecotoxicology and water section at California's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, fish in oil spills can be extremely dangerous to eat because they can ingest oil that can contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons that can cause cancer if eaten in certain amounts.

Scott Breneman, the owner of West Caught Fish, said he still fishes beyond the prohibited area. He said he has been able to keep selling his tuna and black cod to restaurants, but customers aren't buying like they usually do.

"People assume that local fish is contaminated, and we're fishing like 90 miles (145 kilometers) off the beach here, a long ways away," Breneman said.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

California Oil Spill
California has prohibited fishing in the Orange County coast area that ranged about 6 to 12 miles, where an undersea pipeline leaked at least 25,000 gallons of crude oil into the ocean. Above, workers in protective suits clean the contaminated beach after an oil spill in Newport Beach, California, on October 6, 2021. Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

While life along the coast is returning to normal, commercial fishermen and charter operators have been hit especially hard by the closures. Some have joined lawsuits against pipeline owner Amplify Energy of Houston and say their biggest fear is that the spill's stigma will drive away tourists even after the oily tar that washed up on the beaches is long gone.

Eric Zelien, owner of EZ Sportfishing in Huntington Beach, said clients have canceled fishing trips even though there are plenty of areas where fishing is allowed. Instead of running daily trips, he's now taking out groups once or twice a week.

"Most of our out-of-towners are rescheduling their trips. It's kind of like when COVID first hit," he said.

"When you hear oil spill, everyone thinks Exxon Valdez,'' Zelien said, referring to the tanker that ran aground in 1989 in Prince William Sound, Alaska, and spilled millions of gallons. "They panic that the entire ocean is covered with oil and everything is in a state of disrepair."

Environmental advocates initially feared the worst when they learned about the spill. The initial estimate was that the spill might have been five times as large as the amount that officials later announced. The Coast Guard said much of the miles-long plume of oil appeared to break up at sea, limiting the impact on sensitive wetland areas and wildlife along the coast.

Beaches in Huntington Beach, known as "Surf City USA," were closed for swimming and surfing for a week. But surfers there and in nearby Newport Beach quickly returned to the waves after workers cleaned up the sand and local officials tested the water, deeming it safe to enter.

State officials are collecting samples of shellfish from along the shore and fish off the coast and sending them to a lab for analysis. After the testing is completed, state officials will assess whether the fishing grounds closure can be lifted, she said.

That process took about six weeks after a 2015 oil spill in Santa Barbara County, northwest of Los Angeles.

The spill off Orange County's coast was caused by a leak in the pipeline that ferried crude oil from three offshore platforms. The cause is under investigation, but federal officials have said the pipeline was likely initially damaged by a ship's anchor.

Closing fisheries hasn't only walloped those who make their living that way. It's taken away a recreational activity for many who live close to the water. Signs are posted at area beaches warning that fishing is off limits, though a handful of people still drop lines off local piers.

Ted Reckas of Laguna Beach said he's been back to swim and surf at the beach, but since the spill has put on hold lobster diving, which he usually does when the season opens in October.

"The whole thing is upsetting to me—not just the lobster fishing," said Reckas, who for years has walked from his home to the beach to dive and bring back his catch for friends and family.

"Obviously, that was disappointing, but there's a whole ecosystem of sea life that is impacted by this. How many oil spills do we need to have before we figure out a better way?"