KEY WEST, Fla. —Park rangers found dozens of tar balls in the Florida Keys on Tuesday as a new computer model forecast black oil ringing the Florida peninsula next week. The news stoked fears in the state's tourism industry that fallout from the massive BP oil spill had reached the Sunshine State.
The Coast Guard urged calm, saying it would not be known until later this week whether the 50 3- to 8-inch flattened tar balls found Monday and Tuesday were from the Gulf of Mexico disaster or perhaps oil remnants from a passing ship.
"The public is reminded that tar balls are a hazardous material and should only be retrieved by trained personnel," a Coast Guard statement also warned. "The beaches on the Florida Keys remain open at this time."
The discoveries stirred many concerns. For the environment, should the oil waste reach the Keys' precious mangroves. For the Florida economy — both its tourism and fishing industry — after federal authorities imposed a fishing ban in 19 percent of the Gulf of Mexico.
And then for Florida's east coast, once U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., released fresh research predicting traces of Deepwater Horizon's slick reaching the Keys by the weekend and the Miami area sometime next week.
The study was conducted by the University of South Florida College of Marine Science in St. Petersburg, and included a tracking map that graphically showed a black oil slick encircling the Florida peninsula in 10 days.
"While I always hope for the best," Nelson said in a statement, "this is looking like really out-of-control bad."
A tar ball count that started at 20 on Tuesday morning rose to "approximately 50" by day's end, according to Coast Guard spokeswoman Marilyn Fajardo in Miami.
The news Tuesday morning sent environmentalists to the Keys' shores.
Maya Totman of the Florida Keys Wildlife Rescue, searching mangroves in Big Pine Key, said she feared a mixture of oil and debris could cause "a deadly mix that will threaten all the fish and wildlife of the Florida Keys."
In Miami, U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer said he had assigned a team to assess the damage "for potential down-the-road civil or criminal prosecutions."