Anxiety Runs High Among Gulf Coast Fishermen

Shrimper Dwayne Baham i i

hide captionShrimper Dwayne Baham says he is worried about the oil in the Gulf Coast, the dispersant being used to break it down and the fishery's future.

Graham Smith/NPR
Shrimper Dwayne Baham

Shrimper Dwayne Baham says he is worried about the oil in the Gulf Coast, the dispersant being used to break it down and the fishery's future.

Graham Smith/NPR

As untold barrels of oil continue to spill into the Gulf of Mexico, fishermen along the Gulf Coast express deep-seated fears about what this means for their livelihoods.

Most of the shrimping and fishing zones in Louisiana's Plaquemines Parish — one of the strips of land that feather out into the Gulf — have been shut down by the April 20 spill. But at the Ditcharo Seafood Dock on a recent day, shrimper Dwayne Baham had just come in from one of the last open zones with 800 pounds of tiny shrimp — 80-100 shrimp per pound.

State wildlife officials had opened the fishing grounds earlier than normal to allow some harvesting before the oil came in. But three days later, that zone was closed, too.

Baham says he worries about the oil, the dispersant and the fishery's future.

"The worry is your baby stuff," Baham says. "All your little eggs, the little small stuff."

Dock manager Mike Berthelot, 51, calls it "the beginning of the end."

"I don't see no more future for us to ever catch fresh fish ever again — oysters, crabs," says Berthelot, who has been in the business for 34 years. "I think it's over with."

He says estimates of the amount of oil gushing into the Gulf are too low, adding that he thinks he won't trawl or buy shrimp again in his lifetime. He says the effect on the parish would be devastating.

"You had Katrina, Ike, Gustav," he says. "You can add all those together, ain't gonna be nowhere near what this is gonna do."

'A Love-Hate Relationship'

Nearly five years after Hurricane Katrina, Plaquemines Parish still feels temporary, like it's just barely holding on: New construction, mostly prefab buildings, sit high on stilts.

Byron Marinovich, who owns the Black Velvet Oyster Bar and Grill in Buras, La., says the area still lacks a school, library, gas service and cable.

At this time of the year, he says, he's used to fishermen coming in with big fat paychecks.

"It's nothing to see these guys comin' in with $3,000, $5,000 just for a couple days' work," he says. "It's the time to make their money. This couldn't have come at a worse time."

Marinovich's family has been in Plaquemines since the 1860s, fishing oysters. He worked for Chevron for 17 years. The two industries — fishing and oil — have co-existed for generations.

"But it's always been a little bit of a love-hate relationship," he says.

He says BP, which operated the rig that exploded April 20, was trying to produce the well too fast. They were trying to make some more money and it "backfired on 'em," he says.

'It Can Kill Us'

At the marina in Venice, La., Acy Cooper, vice president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, says his whole family has a lot at stake right now. On the dock, Cooper finds his friend Kevin Jury on Jury's boat.

Jury's been working for BP as the company takes water samples. He's brought a plastic bucket back with him. At the bottom, it's coated with a thin film of black particles.

"How deep was the water when you tested this?" Cooper asks him.

Acy Cooper i i

hide captionAcy Cooper, vice president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, says the oil spill could "kill everything."

Graham Smith/NPR
Acy Cooper

Acy Cooper, vice president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, says the oil spill could "kill everything."

Graham Smith/NPR

"Thirty-nine feet, I wanna say," Jury replies.

Cooper says that there should be no oil at 30 feet of water. "Oil should be on top," he says.

That tells him that the dispersant is making the oil heavier and sinking it. He says it's unclear how long it will take microorganisms to break down this quantity of oil.

"We don't know," he says. "They don't know."

Cooper says the impact on shrimping and everything underwater could be deadly. "It can kill us," he says. "It can take everything out of the water. It can kill everything."

Shrimp is a bottom-feeder, he says, and if the oil's at the bottom, "where's he going to feed at?"

He says the shrimp may eat things around the oil that are "contaminated." But, he quickly adds: "I hate that word, 'contaminated.' "

But, he acknowledges, "if it gets in there, it may be a problem."

Talk to fishermen in Louisiana, and they inevitably bring up the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. They know that 20 years later, the fishing industry there still hasn't recovered. Commercial herring was wiped out.

And so they look out over the Gulf waters that have been their bounty. They lay boom where they can, watch and wait.

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