Santa Barbara County’s South Coast is heading into what should be the busiest season of the year for tourism, but the amount of uncertainty surrounding last month’s pipeline leak along the Gaviota coast could be a summer bummer.
Will visitors know that Refugio State Beach, where the spill originated May 19, is some 20 miles west of Santa Barbara? Will the oil slick reach Goleta or Santa Barbara shorelines?
The hospitality industry is feeling a pinch, along with restricted commercial and recreational fishing enterprises and closed county campgrounds.
“You certainly have a loss on the retail side,” Ken Oplinger, president and CEO of The Chamber of the Santa Barbara Region, told Noozhawk.
He noted that restaurants also would experience losses as some travelers stay away from the region.
Basically, any business with “Santa Barbara” in the name has suffered financially, Oplinger said, such as the Santa Barbara Fish Market.
It’s difficult to quantify the local economic impact, but Oplinger seemed especially worried for the commercial fishing community, which is adhering to a ban on fishing and harvesting shellfish up to seven miles offshore between Coal Oil Point and Gaviota State Park to the west.
“The impact to the fishing community is more substantial than we realize,” he said. “There’s no question that there’s impact. It’s hard to look at the numbers right now. This is something we’re going to have to determine over time.”
Local fishermen weren’t clamoring to comment on their losses, but one of them has filed a class-action lawsuit against Plains All American Pipeline, the Houston-based company that owns the leaking pipe.
Attorneys representing Santa Barbara sea urchin diver and near-shore fisherman Stace Cheverez wouldn’t confirm whether others have joined in the suit, which alleges that Plains negligently operated the pipeline, which lacked an automatic shut-off valve.
“We continue to hear from fishermen, local businesses and others who have been impacted by this oil spill,” said Matthew Preusch, an attorney in the Santa Barbara office of Seattle-based Keller Rohrback LLP, which filed the complaint along with San Francisco-based Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein.
Keller Rohrback represented fishermen, landowners and businesses after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska and won a $5 billion judgment, according to the firm.
Some Santa Barbara commercial fishermen spoke of the devastation at a private meeting last week, where Oplinger learned the banned area represents a third of total fishing area for those whose liveliehoods — like Cheverez’s — depend on grass rockfish and other species that stay close to shore.
“Clearly, given the allegations made in the lawsuit by the one fisherman, it appears that some fishermen believe they have been denied opportunity either current or future,” said Santa Barbara Harbor operations manager Mick Kronman, who didn’t know any fishermen joining the complaint. “How that plays out has yet to be seen.”
The oil leak hasn’t affected all hotels, at least not during the recent Memorial Day weekend, according to Visit Santa Barbara president and CEO Kathy Janega-Dykes.
“Visit Santa Barbara, the destination marketing organization for the region, has been closely monitoring the potential impact of the Refugio oil spill on tourism,” she said in a statement. “Although some hotels did get calls from visitors asking about the condition of beaches for Memorial Day weekend, one of the busiest tourism weekends of the year, occupancy was about the same as last year, with most hotels selling out.
“A poll of our hotels and attractions after Memorial Day weekend indicated that a majority of respondents — 62 percent — reported no negative impact on business. The rest reported minimal or moderate impact.”
Janega-Dykes said her organization is doing everything it can to emphasize that Santa Barbara’s visitor industry is open for business.
“We’re extremely grateful to the cleanup workers who’ve been working to restore our beaches and waterways and keep them safe for visitors and residents,” she said. “We’ll continue to monitor the situation and get the word out about any updates.”
Oplinger encouraged business owners who’ve been negatively affected by the spill to file a claim with Plains All American Pipeline, which is promising to address some of those losses.
Click here for more information about filing a claim.
— Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.