ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. — Scott Owens has fished for decades in the gray waters off the Georgia coast. Usually this time of year, his phone would be filled with nothing but photographs of redfish and speckled trout he reeled in with clients who hired him as their guide.
Instead, his catches have been crowded out by photographs of tar balls swirling in the water, tall grass stained by oil and an enormous vessel carrying 4,200 cars that he has watched slowly turn belly-up after wrecking weeks ago, unleashing oil and chemicals into the St. Simon Sound.
He has had some customers cancel. He has wondered about the potential trips that have not been booked. But more than that, as the drawn-out and delicate work of removing the ship from the sound looms, he has worried about how the wreck will affect the coast that is the source of his livelihood and at the center of his life.
“The whole thing is a mess. It really is,” Mr. Owens said on a recent afternoon by the dock on St. Simons Island where he and other charter fishermen launch their boats.
The 656-foot vessel, called the Golden Ray, has been lying since early September off a slice of the Georgia coast specked with resorts and sprawling high-dollar homes. It has made for a jarring sight that has left many in the community unsettled by what it will ultimately mean for the economy and environment.
“It’s a wait-and-see game,” said Rob Aldridge, a charter fisherman who leads trips along the Georgia coast.
The shipping vessel started to capsize Sept. 8 after a fire broke out on board.
The signs of environmental damage were soon evident. Smoke clouded the sound and oil and fuel washed onto the shore. A dark horizontal band has been left on a long stretch of shoreline, a marker of the pollutants carried in by the high tides.
Officials have since worked to stanch pollution and piece together a plan for dealing with the wreckage. More than 400 people and 70 vessels, along with some 51,000 feet of containment boom, have been deployed as part of the response, which is being handled jointly by the United States Coast Guard, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and Gallagher Marine Systems, the contractor operating the ship for Hyundai.
For weeks, one of the primary tasks has been to extract hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel from the vessel; about 315,000 gallons have been removed.
“We were able to get in front of what could have been a much larger-magnitude event by containing the vessel, containing certain sensitive areas with containment boom,” said Petty Officer Michael Hines, a spokesman for the unified command.
A considerable undertaking lies ahead as officials have to remove a ship whose structural integrity has degraded so much that righting the vessel and carting it off is not viable. Instead, it will be cut into pieces, its cargo still on board, a process that could take up to a year or more. Officials said in a statement that this was the “safest way of removing the vessel for the public, responders, and the environment.”
But environmental advocates have expressed concerns about new waves of oil and chemicals being released as the vessel is dismantled. Fletcher Sams, the executive director of the Altamaha Riverkeeper, a nonprofit that monitors pollution in Georgia’s Altamaha River, described “a concoction of contaminants” already found in the water that has included gas and heavy bunker fuel that powered the ship, as well as gasoline, diesel and antifreeze from the vehicles that were being transported.
It remains unknown how much has flowed into the sound. The discharge could have been limited to a small amount, but the oil and chemicals could have also washed into marshland and seeped into the sediment.
“I’ve heard people say we dodged a bullet,” said Samantha B. Joye, a professor of marine science at the University of Georgia. But she cautioned that the toll might not yet be visible.
“My biggest concern is that it’s heavy and sticking to the bottom,” she said of the discharge. “We’re not seeing anything because it’s sinking or has sunk. That’s hard to wrap your head around.”
Command officials said that water and air quality have been continuously measured since the wreck. State public health officials have warned swimmers and fishers to stay alert and to “avoid contact with oil or oily products,” but have not closed the beaches. In recent weeks, boat launches were opened to the public again, as well as recreational shellfish harvesting areas.
St. Simons is part of the Golden Isles, the barrier islands freckling the Georgia coast. Spanish moss flows from tree branches and people riding bicycles in swimsuits meander down roads packed with plantation-style homes.
Mr. Aldridge, the charter fisherman, grew up in North Carolina and came to the Georgia coast from Florida. There, gaggles of boats all hovered around the same fishing spots. Here, he found the space to explore.
“There’s so much water here you’re not fighting for a spot,” he said. “You can still just run away from everybody and get lost.”
Since the wreck, Mr. Sams has assembled a crew of residents and others who have been monitoring the ship and shoreline. Fishermen have been essential. Few know the movements of the water and the nooks and crannies of the coastline as well as they do.
“This is like our office,” Kevin Dezern, a charter operator, said as he cleaned up his boat at a marina in the last light of a recent evening.
Businesses can file claims to recoup losses related to the wreck, but officials said they had received just one claim and only about a dozen calls. Lt. Cmdr. Matt Waller, the unified command’s liaison to area businesses, said that anxieties had eased among the business owners he talked to, and that concerns from their customers seem to have dissipated.
“The general level of concern has leveled off, but there’s interest in the long-term impacts in the community,” he said. “Those that I have spoken to generally have a positive outlook about how things are going.”
Still, he acknowledged, “It’s too early in the response to say what the long-term effects are.”
While the fall is not typically the busiest season, guides said that it is a crucial period that helps them save for the leaner winter months. Demand peaks in the spring.
“My phone’s not ringing,” said Mr. Owens, whose charter business, by his count, usually books as many as 800 trips in a year.
Standing with other fishermen by a dock, he said, “His phone’s not ringing.” He looked at another guide. “Is yours ringing?”
On a warm and windy afternoon, Mr. Owens’s boat glided over the water. He cruised by homes, on the water’s edge, large and well-appointed enough to pass for resorts. He passed expanses of spartina grass inked with a black line.
The ship was an astonishing sight given its dimensions and precarious position. It was essentially a floating parking garage built to trudge through the turbulence of the high seas. Now, its hull basked in the sunlight; its propeller was above the waves.
Mr. Owens pulled up an earlier photograph on his phone, pointing out how the vessel had gradually keeled over. The deck, with its basketball court and communication tower, faced the sky in his photograph. Now, it was slipping under the water. Thousands of tons of rocks have been put in the sound to stop its rolling.
“This is going to be here this time next year — no doubt,” Mr. Owens said, noting one of the few things at the moment of which he seemed certain. He revved the boat’s engine and pushed toward the shore, the ship shrinking in his wake.