Crabbing, fishing temporarily halted over bay oil spill

SAN FRANCISCO -- Gov. Schwarzenegger on Tuesday suspended all fishing in areas affected by last week's San Francisco Bay oil spill. He called the incident an "unbelievable human failure" and promised to investigate the spill and the Coast Guard's response.

Fishermen concerned about the 58,000-gallon spill had requested the closure, which delays Thursday's scheduled start of the highly anticipated commercial season for Dungeness crab and interrupts the catch for sport fishermen.

At Fisherman's Wharf, out-of-town fishermen who had traveled to San Francisco for crab season prepared to head home after hearing about the suspension.

"We're going to go home broke," Jason Morford, 38, of Newport, Ore., said "We're going to be in the hole."

The spill occurred when a cargo ship struck the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in heavy fog last week, tearing a gash in its hull. The pilot of the ship said he immediately reported the presence of oil in the water, but cleanup crews didn't arrive on the scene for nearly 90 minutes. A Coast Guard log places a skimming vessel at the scene in 80 minutes.

Coast Guard officials defended their response as "by the book," but concede mistakes in their communication with the public. Initial reports had the spill at just 140 gallons; the Coast Guard waited hours after learning it was much larger before notifying local officials.

Federal prosecutors are conducting a criminal probe and have interviewed members of the crew about the events leading up to the crash. The harbor pilot who was guiding the ship through the bay toward open water has not been subpoenaed in that investigation, his lawyer said.

A day after the spill, the governor praised the Coast Guard for taking "immediate action."

Speaking Tuesday at the California State Association of Counties' annual meeting, Schwarzenegger seemed to change course.

The oil spill was the result of "unbelievable human failure," he said. "Then on top of it, it takes that long to react to the oil spill so by the time the next day comes around, the oil is all over the bay."

Later, after a briefing by Coast Guard officials at their command center on Treasure Island, Schwarzenegger sidestepped questions about whether he was satisfied with the agency's response.

"I'm not an investigator," he said.

He did pledge a thorough investigation "to see also if we as a state can do more in order to prevent those kind of accidents."

"Believe me, we will ask the tough questions that need to be asked," Schwarzenegger said.

At Clipper Cove on Treasure Island, more than a dozen cleanup workers in white hazmat suits worked on their hands and knees, painstakingly skimming thin layers of sand from the beach with hand trowels. By midday, Peter Cabral of the cleanup company Emergency Response Group said crews had filled about 125 bags with oil and other debris just from Clipper Cove. Similar cleanup efforts continued across the region.

In addition to delaying the commercial crab season, the temporary ban on fishing affects sport fishing for sturgeon, halibut and other species in the bay.

Officials say it's the first fishing ban stemming from an oil spill in California.

Schwarzenegger also ordered the state Department of Public Health to determine whether people can become sick if they eat seafood caught in areas affected by the spill.

The start of the commercial crab season was postponed until Dec. 1, or until state health and wildlife officials deem it safe to reopen the fisheries. The delicacy is enjoyed by tourists and residents who serve crab alongside the turkey with their Thanksgiving dinner.