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Cedar Key's pristine waters were in the spotlight on Wednesday as national news media converged on the island to cover the release of 23 Kemps Ridley sea turtles, victims of the BP oil spill that were cleaned and rehabilitated by various groups.
Adding wattage to the event was the presence of retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen and National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco, who joined federal and state Fish and Wildlife Commission officials and staff at the city marina and dock.
Their presence drew members of the national media including CNN's John Zarella and a satellite truck and crew, the Associated Press and others.
Allen, who heads the government's response effort to the BP Gulf of Mexico Oil spill, flew into Williston Airport on Tuesday and spent the night at the Island House Hotel and had breakfast at the Rusty Rim, as did Lubchenco.
"This is anti-Washington," he said as he greeted Levy County Commissioner Lilly Rooks and CK Mayor Pat O'Neal and spoke privately with the two officials who have been at the forefront in handling local contingency planning for the oil spill response had any of the oil made its way to the county's pristine shores, estuaries and aquaculture areas. The two have, along with other officials from throughout the western Gulf coast have been coordinating work to update the contingency plans used by the Coast Guard's St. Petersburg Command.
"I would love to bring my grandsons here," Allen said. They boys are 9 and 12 years old and do not know how to fish, yet, he said.
Lubchenco said Cedar Key was chosen for the release for a number of reasons. "This area was not oiled," she said. "And because this is the best type of habitat for the Kemps Ridley turtles os this age."
The turtles, ranging in age form 1 to 3 years, were captured at sea and were moderately to heavily oiled, she said. They were cleaned and rahabilitated by various groups including the Audubon Aquarium in New Orleans and SeaWorld. She said all of the turtles will be released at various places on the Florida coast, but emphasized that the Cedar Key release was the first because of the pristine nature of the water and the habitat was the friendliest for the turtles.
"This is not for show," Allen said. "This is to let people know we are on the road to recovery."
Allen also took note of the areas aquaculture and seafood industry, which have taken an economic hit along with tourism at Cedar Key. "The seafood coming out of the Gulf is safe. It's the most tested in the world.
"There are no doubts about that."
And he mentioned specifically that Cedar Key was "never oiled" although it has taken a hit in the perception by folks who do not live in the area.
"The seafood is fine if the waters were never closed, which was the case here," Lubchenco said as several video cameras recorded. "The seafood that you buy or eat from the Gulf is safe,"
Lubchenco addressed the problem os public perception.
"It's been a challenge just because folks don't distinguish one part of the Gulf from others."
Teresa and Terry Tataru and their dog Mikko watched the spectacle of media people covering the press conference and snapping photos at the city dock.
"It's very exciting that they are doing this here," she said. I came out to exercise with the dog and I saw all the FWC people and I knew something was going on so we came back to see it.
"I think it means we have a special place and we are very lucky. This is very positive. People get to see our waters are pristine."
Steve Stewart, a local fisherman and crabber, said the news is a positive for the area but not the best for him as turtles like to feat on the crabs in his traps. "But this is good news," he said as he fueled up his truck and grabbed a meal at the Chevron on State Road 24.
Lubchenco said her overnight visit to Cedar Key was "a special pleasure."
"This is a warm and welcoming area," she said. She commended their hosts Stanley and Andy Bair, the historic lIsland Hotel's owners. "They were delightful and they piqued my interest in the area," she said.
Stanley Bair said they did not know the importance of their guests until 8:30 p.m. Tuesday night.
"We didn't really know who they were until after most of them checked in," she said. "We took the reservations as they came in.
"We were excited that this would give Cedar Key some publicity — some good publicity," Bair said with emphasis. "And people would see that our waters are safe as ever."
She said the hotel staff worked to make the guests comfortable. "We flattered they chose the hotel. I didn't ask how they found the hotel. I was just very pleased that they wanted to stay there.. They told us they thoroughly enjoyed it."
"It's great that the people at Sea World thought that Cedar Key was the place to do this. Once again, it's so nice to have positive publicity." She said the folks from SeaWorld talked about how the local waters have the nutrients needed for the turtles.
"Usually this time of year CNN is there waiting for hurricanes to come and it seems that Cedar Key is always in the news when there's a hurricane in the Gulf.
In addition, Doreen and Oliver Bauer at Faraway Inn played host to Adm. Allen and a number of Coast Guard personnel who had checked in early in preparation for the turtle release.
"This is big for us. We are very excited for the release of these beautiful sea turtles," the couple said in an email.