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The coast is in danger, and it affects us all

The first tar balls from the devastating gulf oil spill have washed up on Alabama’s shoreline. Most of our state waters are now closed to fishing. Each day we worry about further environmental damage to our state.

Everyone in Alabama knows how important our coastline and waters are, and the impact is still yet unknown of the gross negligence and unpreparedness of BP and others who let this spill happen.

The Alabama gulf coast is the number one tourist destination for people in our state and coming to our state. Baldwin County alone counts for $2.3 billion in tourism spending per year, more than a quarter of the $9 billion Alabama tourism industry.

Tourists on Alabama beaches support more than 40,000 workers. It is one of the most important economic engines in our state, and it is already feeling the negative affects of the oil spill.

Dauphin Island, where the first tar balls have come ashore, is seeing a cancellation rate of 50 percent on house and hotel rentals. Cancellations are already being seen in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach as well. Restaurants are seeing fewer customers, and the ripple effect continues.

The seafood from Alabama’s coast is some of the world’s best. The shrimp from Bayou LaBatre and Bon Secour rival that of any port in the world. Our oyster beds in Mobile Bay have increased in size and productivity in the last decade. Fish like red snapper from the rich gulf waters has grown in popularity and importance.

May is the time when most commercial seafood harvesting begins, and now it is halted.

Seafood products in Bayou La Batre alone have a dockside value averaging more than $30 million each year.

Processing and the other related jobs that commercial fishing creates have an economic impact on the state that normally ranges between $90 and $l00 million, just from that one port.

Because of the spill, more than 46,000 square miles of the Gulf of Mexico are closed to fishing.  That includes all the waters right up to Alabama’s territorial waters. The value of gulf coast commercial fishing is $15 billion, and accounts for 20 percent of all the U.S seafood production. It is now all threatened by this unconscionable act by BP.

Every aspect of our state is threatened by this catastrophe, not only our natural resources but our entire state economy as well. If tourism continues to suffer, our unemployment, already too high, will rise.

Moreover, it affects the sales and income taxes that fund our schools and support vital public services.

Now there are some signs that BP is trying to minimize its liability. They have been consistently underestimating the size of the spill. Transocean, the drilling subcontractor for BP, earlier this month asked a federal court in Houston to limit its liability for damages to the cost of the sunken oil platform — about $27 million.

BP has also talked about honoring only “legitimate claims” and the like.

The Legislature stands ready if any new measures need to be passed to help with the catastrophe or to make sure BP is held accountable. They must be held accountable for every dime of hardship they have caused us.

Meanwhile, all of Alabama’s beaches remain open and safe.  Let us hope that the damage is limited to what we can clean up, and that our precious coast rebounds after the spill is gone.

Johnny Mack Morrow is a state representative for Franklin County. His column appears each Wednesday.