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Gulf Coast Braces for Economic Disasater In Wake of BP Oil Spill

As if the ecological destruction weren't enough, the Gulf Coast economy faces billions in losses from BP's recklessness.

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"There's extreme concern from the department's standpoint because the marshes and the fishing grounds that could be affected are extremely valuable to the state's economy," says Bo Boehringer, a spokesperson for the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. "There's a ripple effect from those to harvest to process to the restaurants that use them in the state and beyond."

Even in places where the oil hasn't yet hit, travelers are reconsidering their plans, and
Gulf Coast beach tourism could suffer for months to come. "What is hurting our coastal businesses is the widespread speculation that the worst has happened and the coast's businesses are closed," says Sally Williams of the Mississippi Development Authority. People are already canceling hotel reservations for fear of oil-drenched beaches and buying up seafood in anticipation of coming shortages.

In Mississippi, the
Gulf Coast accounts for 30 percent of the entire state's tourism industry, according to King, and drives about 25,000 jobs. In towns like
, casinos are a big draw, but the sheen of oil could dampen that business, too.

"When people come down here to game, they might stay inside a casino," King says. "But if they regard the coast as some oil-ravaged wasteland, they might not come to begin with."

Even in the unlikely event of a swift and effective cleanup, the damage could last for years. Fishermen are not just losing money on the days they spend without work. Without fishing income, they'll be unable to recoup the investment they've already committed to refurbish their boats for the season. Oyster fishermen would normally be starting to seed their beds for future oyster crops, which take a couple of years to mature. Without access to fishing areas, even those shut down for precautionary measures, the fishermen could lose the chance to start growing the oysters that should be harvested in two years’ time.

"If the oil impacts the growing areas, then you may have damage to the standing crop, and future crops," says John Tesvich, chairman of the Louisiana Oyster Taskforce. "There’s a potential for that, but it’s still too early to tell."

Even under rosy scenarios in which the prospect of permanent ecological damage—and therefore permanent economic damage—is discounted, the
Gulf Coast will take years to recover.

BP has suffered some consequences: its stock price dropped, and cleaning up the spill will cost billions. But its core business—selling oil—has not been brought to a standstill in the way that the work of hundreds of small fisheries in the Gulf Coast have been. The price of oil has remained steady, and BP has rigs all over the world to keep supplying its product.

government is hedging its bets on who will help its businesses deal with this disaster. Gov. Bobby Jindal's office has already filed a request with the Department of Commerce to declare a "commercial fisheries failure," which would trigger federal assistance for the fishing industry—an ironic about-face from a conservative Republican who criticized federal relief provided by President Barack Obama's economic stimulus bill. Kris Van Orsdel, an official at the Louisiana Recovery authority who's working on the issue, says there’s no way of knowing what sort of funding Washington would provide but that the governor's office wanted to begin the process as soon as possible.

"While BP is stating that they're on the hook for this, we just want to make sure that we're covering all our bases," he says.

Sarah Laskow is a writer living in New York. A former staff writer for the Center for Public Integrity, her work has appeared in the American Prospect, Politico, and other publications.