FWC Officers Patrol the Waters of Northwest Florida

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FWC scientists collect water samples from coastal waters of Northwest Florida. - FWC photoAboard the Guardian, a 45-foot offshore vessel, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) Lt. Rama Shuster keeps an eye out for oil on the waters in Gulf, Franklin and Wakulla counties.

The FWC’s mission since the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil platform in late April has been reconnaissance: tracking the movement of oil along the coast. Officers are on the water, patrolling the beaches on ATVs and flying daily missions, monitoring the shoreline and reporting what they find.

Shuster has been on the water for two weeks now. Last week, he was aboard the Orion, a 50-foot, offshore vessel, patrolling the waters off Pensacola. Shuster normally captains the Guardian and is assigned to the Crystal River Field Office in Citrus County.

“We saw quite a bit of product around Pensacola,” Shuster said. “But it’s clear so far around Carrabelle. However, we’re definitely keeping a watch for any product that we might encounter.”

When Shuster and his crew do find oil, they will determine the exact location, photograph what they see and then send the report back to the Florida Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee.

“We’ve also had FWC biologists and personnel from our partner agencies on board with us so they can also view the waters,” Shuster said. “We have been taking water samples at the surface and from the bottom in areas where fishermen have made reports of oil sightings and interviewing the fishermen to get as much information as possible.”

The Orion is ready to take FWC staff out into the Gulf of Mexico off Northwest Florida. - FWC photoAs of June 18, the FWC has 75 vessels working the water patrol from the state line to Wakulla County. The vessels will be moved as needed for reconnaissance, and more boats will be added if required.

“The good news is I haven’t seen any oiled wildlife yet,” Shuster said. “All the birds I’m seeing today on patrol seem healthy and appear to be free of oil. Some of the other crews haven’t been as fortunate. They have seen some oiled animals.”

Those animals were documented and recovered.

“Our secondary mission while we’re out here is directing the cleanup crews to the product we find. We make sure they have the proper coordinates and are able to locate the oil. We don’t do the cleanup but we help the contractors get to the areas that need work,” Shuster said. “We also keep the EOC informed as to how many cleanup vessels are in the area and their locations.

“Friday, we ran 37 miles south of Carrabelle to an area where a fisherman reported oil.”

At that location, the boat crew took six samples at the surface, mid-water column and on the bottom.  They then took samples in a quarter-mile radius around the coordinates and found no traces of oil.

“Even though we are not finding oil over here to the east, it’s just as important to investigate these reports and keep the fisherman informed so they can continue to enjoy the waters before the oil does move in,” Shuster said.

Shuster doesn’t know how long he’ll be deployed to Northwest Florida but anticipates that it’s a long-term event.

“We’ll do whatever it takes to protect the resources and people of Florida,” he said.  “That’s our job and we’re going to do it to the best of our ability.”