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    Oil Spill Halts Fishing off US Coast of Gulf of Mexico

    U.S. officials have suspended fishing in most waters affected by a massive oil spill from a sunken off-shore rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Concerns about the oil's impact on fish and other wildlife are mounting.

    Officials say the fishing restrictions will hold for 10 days as scientists study the effects of the oil spill on commercial seafood in the Gulf of Mexico.  The areas under the suspension include waters off the coasts of southeastern Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and the panhandle of Florida.

    The spill, caused by the sinking of an oil rig, comes shortly before the start of the fishing season for crab, shrimp and oysters.  The fishing industry in Louisiana is responsible for about a third of all seafood caught in the United States.  And fishermen in the southeastern town of Venice say they stand to lose a great deal.

    Dozens of fishermen gathered at a Venice school on Sunday to meet with representatives of BP America, the firm that operates the underwater well.  BP is hiring local fishing boats to help in oil clean-up efforts.

    Richard Williamson, who captains a shrimp boat, says he has not fished this season, so he needs to work with BP. "We haven't had a chance to get out yet.  That's why we're hoping to get my boat hired here so it won't be a whole waste.  The next three to four months are shrimp season time," he said.

    Williamson says the details of the fishing boat program are unclear - when the program will start, what fishermen will be asked to do and how they will be paid.  Williamson says he worries there were more fishermen at the meeting than BP might be willing to hire. "They haven't said, but there are rumors going around saying 30 boats they might hire.  Thirty boats out of all these people.  So the ones that don't get hired, I don't know what they're going to do."

    Bad weather has hampered efforts to send out boats to clean-up the oil spill and monitor the effects of oil on wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico.

    Wildlife officials say that in addition to fish, bird populations are at serious risk of being poisoned by the oily water.  Bird rescue groups have set up four facilities along the Gulf, including one near Venice, to treat contaminated birds.

    Jay Holcomb, the director of the International Bird Rescue Research Center, says they have seen only one bird so far - a northern gannet that was brought in on Saturday. "We only know of this one bird.  And because of the weather, we don't have crews out looking for them; it's just not safe," he said.

    Holcomb says the facility near Venice is prepared to handle up to 200 birds per day.  The challenge will be finding them in the vast spill and sending boats to rescue them.

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