Spill could hurt San Francisco tourism

The oil spill that has already fouled San Francisco Bay and delayed the Dungeness crab season is raising fears that visitors will be reluctant to dine in the city's famed seafood restaurants.

“It's not going to be a pretty picture. It's definitely going to hurt,” said Anthony Geraldi, co-owner of Fisherman's Grotto, adding that seafood sales are the one bright spot during the normally slow fall tourism season.

Several beaches remained closed Tuesday, nearly a week after a cargo ship struck the Bay Bridge, releasing 58,000 gallons of bunker fuel in the bay's biggest oil spill in nearly two decades.

The sea lions at the city's world-famous Fisherman's Wharf have largely avoided exposure to the oil, and the stench of fuel that had hung over the bay dissipated by Tuesday. But dark, patchy slicks continue to float in some areas, and several beaches remained closed as teams in yellow hazardous-materials suits shoved sticky globs of oil and sand into plastic bags.

Sue Kelvington's visit to Ocean Beach turned messy when some of the children in her group went swimming and emerged with oil stains on their skin.

“They'd never seen the ocean,” said Kelvington, who was visiting from Salt Lake City with her daughter and some cousins. Explaining why they ignored warnings to stay out of the ocean, she said her relatives “were going to have fun anyway.”

Over the weekend, the spill forced organizers of the San Francisco Triathlon to cancel the swimming portion of the competition. Dozens of the 900 athletes were hoping to gain points to qualify for the Olympic Games.

Dungeness crab is popular with tourists and is a Thanksgiving tradition for many residents. The crab season had been scheduled to begin Thursday, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issued an executive order delaying opening day until Dec. 1, or until fish and game officials decide the waters are safe.

Most seafood sold at Fisherman's Wharf is caught far offshore, or elsewhere on the Pacific Coast. Even the crabs on ice in front of wharf eateries were likely shipped in from the Pacific Northwest, but some tourists were not taking any chances.

“We haven't had it,” said Eileen Klinkatsis, visiting from North Carolina for the Oracle World software conference. As she spoke, she looked out over the barking sea lions at Pier 39. “I really don't think we're going to have it at all.”

The California State Park Service also temporarily closed Angel Island and canceled all public ferry service to that popular hiking and biking destination.

Angela Jackson, spokeswoman for the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau, said ferries to Alcatraz were still doing a brisk business.

Nathan Ballard, a spokesman for Mayor Gavin Newsom, said it's too soon to know whether the spill cost the city tourism dollars – hotels were mostly booked this week because of the Oracle conference. But city officials were considering a promotional campaign to reassure the public.

Some tourists seemed less than concerned.

British retirees Ken and Chris Green arrived at their Fisherman's Wharf hotel Monday and immediately went out for a seafood dinner, even though they had seen television reports about the oil spill. They were also planning ferry trips to Alcatraz and Sausalito.

“I'd guess there would be controls that would forbid contaminated food from getting to the table,” Ken Green said.

Holly Ashland, a stay-at-home mom from Durham, N.C., said she will avoid the wax museums and T-shirt stands, but not the seafood restaurants of Fisherman's Wharf.

“Smells good, tastes good,” Ashland said as she savored a sourdough bowl full of clam chowder. “Isn't it just as safe as eating beef from cows who had pesticides? How much guarantee do we ever have of food safety?”

Joe Oropeza, who packs and ships seafood on nearby Pier 45, ate a crab sandwich slathered with Tabasco.

“I know where this stuff comes from,” he said. “It's from a long way from shore, and the oil spill didn't affect that area.”

But tourist Kelley Groesser worried about the long-term effects of the oil spill on the region.

“When I go to Santa Barbara with my girlfriends, we can see the oil tankers offshore, and you come back from a walk on the beach with oil on your bare feet,” she said. “It's not pleasant. I hope the same thing doesn't happen here.”

Associated Press writers Juliana Barbassa and Lisa Leff contributed to this report.

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