Feds lift fishing ban off Florida's Panhandle

Federal regulators lifted a fishing ban off Florida on Tuesday, pronouncing all but a small area far off the Panhandle coast clear of any oil spill stigma.

But with a tropical system brewing in the Gulf of Mexico, few fishermen are likely to venture into increasingly rough waters -- at least over the next few days.

Late Tuesday, the National Hurricane Center said a tropical depression had formed in the Gulf and was heading toward the spill site.

The threat was serious enough that BP was again forced to halt drilling on two relief wells -- the last step in permanently sealing a blown-out well that had closed in37 percent of the Gulfand crippled the fishing and tourism industries in four states.

Gov. Charlie Crist called the move by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to reopen 5,144 square miles of federal waters from Pensacola to Cape San Blas a "much needed boost to our economy and quality in life" and urged visitors to come on down.

Reopening the areas was symbolically important enough that NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco flew to Panama City Beach to announce that a "rigorous set of steps" had shown seafood in the area was safe.

"Oil is not present and not expected to be present," she said.

None had been detected in tests or aerial surveys for more than 30 days.

NOAA also tested 153 fish including grouper, snapper, tuna and dolphin caught between June 27 and July 20. The samples passed both experts' "sensory analysis" -- basically sniffing for oil -- as well as more sophisticated chemical analysis.

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