Capt. Kathy Wilkinson on the Oil Slick and its Business Impact

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Kathy Wilkinson, a "boat captain and master naturalist," operates an eco-tourism business in southern Mississippi and brings us an update from the Gulf coast on the practical impact of the looming oil slick.

My name is Kathy Wilkinson, a boat captain and master naturalist from Gautier, Mississippi. I own and operate Eco-Tours of South Mississippi, LLC, and offer interpretive motorboat tours year around on the Pascagoula River, the largest free-flowing river in the 48 contiguous United States and home to several endangered or threatened species including the Gulf Sturgeon. Our tours focus on native flora and fauna in the marsh and swamp, and the culture and heritage of the area. In addition to the 2 hour, 4 hour and 8 hour tours, I also offer kayaking and overnight trips into the swamp. My operation is small, so it gives me a lot of flexibility. But because my operation is small, I'm also very vulnerable to fluctuations in the economy. I've been in business for four years, having started up right after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast. I felt as though opening a new business after the hurricane showed my commitment to rebuilding the coast, and, with the help of my husband, have been moderately successful in my endeavor thus far.

In October 2008, I suffered along with many business owners when the economy tanked. However, I have seen an increase over the past several months and, in fact, enjoyed my best March ever this year. April was a stellar month as well, and I was gearing up for my busiest (and most lucrative) year to date. That is, up until BP's Deepwater Horizon burned and sank, spilling oil into the Gulf of Mexico. My phone has not rung since. To say that the last week and a half have been scary is an understatement. At times I seriously believed that this was the end of the world, or at least the world as we know it on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. This past Sunday was the worst. Grey, thick clouds hung low over the coast and the strong southerly winds blew the oil closer and closer to our shores on the northern Gulf Coast. The smell of oil permeated the dense air. It reminded me of the days leading up to a hurricane, the difference being that a hurricane is somewhat predictable, is a natural disaster, and there's plenty of preparation to be done in securing one's belongings, which gives the feeling of doing something. With the oil, it's been a waiting game with no mindless activity to keep us busy. It's frustrating and frightening at the same time. I've been sick with worry thinking about the wildlife, and wondering how the ospreys − all the birds, really − and the dolphins are going to survive. I'm so afraid that the estuary, where the river meets the sea, will become contaminated with crude oil, which has the potential to devastate our wonderful seafood industry, as 90 percent of commercially fished fish spend a part of their life cycle in the estuary.

At this point, we don't know what the net effect of the oil spill will be on coastal Mississippi. Unfortunately, if the oil comes ashore, it could be devastating to not only the estuary and the seafood industry, but tourism and our way of life as well. Remember, though, South Mississippi is OPEN FOR BUSINESS, and we need help to keep our economy alive during this difficult and uncertain time.

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