A Love-Hate History: Oil And Fishing In The Gulf

Second in an occasional series.

Channels and bayous crisscross the marsh grasses in Cocodrie, Louisiana.

Channels and bayous crisscross the marsh grasses in Cocodrie, La. Over the years, the cutting of channels for oil and gas exploration has contributed to Louisiana's receding coastline. Debbie Elliot/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Debbie Elliot/NPR

The local fisherman feared their way of life was in jeopardy when the first oilmen arrived in Cajun south Louisiana. But over the last half century, the two industries learned to live together. Oil and gas brought jobs and opportunity for many families.

Now, with the offshore oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, some are asking the question: "At what cost?"

A Balancing Act

In the 1953 film Thunder Bay, Jimmy Stewart plays an oil prospector who comes to the Louisiana Bayou. He and his partner have a solution to the "offshore problem" — a barge platform that can plumb the deep Gulf waters. A shrimper's daughter is wary: "They'll spoil everything they touch," she says. "Oil crews with their filthy men and their filthy money."

Anthony Chauvin, left, and his son, David, stand on where, until recently, they unloaded shrimp. i i

Anthony Chauvin, left, and his son, David, stand on the dock where, until recently, they unloaded shrimp for their family shrimp company in Chauvin, La. Since the oil spill, they have been using their family-owned boats to help clean up the oil with boom. Debbie Elliot/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Debbie Elliot/NPR
Anthony Chauvin, left, and his son, David, stand on where, until recently, they unloaded shrimp.

Anthony Chauvin, left, and his son, David, stand on the dock where, until recently, they unloaded shrimp for their family shrimp company in Chauvin, La. Since the oil spill, they have been using their family-owned boats to help clean up the oil with boom.

Debbie Elliot/NPR

The old film underscores the decades-long balancing act in Louisiana to harvest its most valuable natural resources — the sweet crude deep below the seafloor, and the fertile waters above, teeming with fish and shellfish.

Anthony Chauvin has always been a man to "drag nets in the Gulf." The retired shrimper and boat builder now helps his son, David Chauvin, run the Mariah Jade Shrimp Company in Chauvin, La. The family's roots are in the water.

"Grandpa Cap Chauvin, he was the first trawler. My daddy was the second, I'm the third, and David's the fourth, and his kids are the fifth generation," he says.

It's always been a family business. Cap Chauvin's five daughters made the nets their father and brother used to trawl shrimp.

Today, the Chauvins have hung up their nets. The outriggers on their boats instead pull boom through the Gulf of Mexico to catch spilled oil.

When The Oil Arrived

At 63, Chauvin is too young to remember when the first oil speculators came to Terrebonne Parish in the 1940s. But he remembers his grandfather Cap didn't like it one bit.

"When the oil company first came down here with the Cajuns, they didn't want the oil company," Chauvin says. "And they couldn't stop 'em."

Eventually, he says, the oil companies hired local people and paid them good money. So by the time Chauvin was fishing, the oil rigs were just as much a part of the Gulf seascape as the brown shrimp he was chasing.

"You know, we live with the oil companies down here, and we get along," he says. He even used to work in the offshore oilfields himself.

"At times, I've seen myself in the wintertime, fishing wasn't good when I was a young man. So we would go and work for the oil company. And then when the season would come back, we would go back fishing, you know."

Often, fishing took place around the oil rigs and platforms, he says, where you could find the most shrimp.

There's a replica of an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico exhibit at the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans. School-age children file past the giant saltwater tank where sea turtles, sting rays, sharks and schools of tarpon circle around the legs of the rig, which serve as an artificial reef. Some of the kids are surprised to see that the exhibit is sponsored by BP and a host of other oil companies.

The exhibit illustrates the intricate relationship between coastal Louisiana and the oil and gas industry, according to Mark Davis, director of the Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy at Tulane University Law School.

"Even here, we were essentially proudly telling people how integral not only is oil and gas to just the sea life in the Gulf and our way of life, but it's essentially become integrated in the entire ecology," Davis says. "The irony is almost overwhelming."

He says Louisiana's relationship with the oil and gas industry has been a dicey one, balancing the need to protect the nursery grounds that produce a bountiful Gulf with the need to industrialize a traditionally poor state.

Taming A Wild Coast

Dating back to early European settlers, Davis says, there's been a drive to tame and develop Louisiana's coast.

Number Of Oil Platforms Off Louisiana Coast: 1942-Present

Number of oil platforms in the gulf from 1942 to present.
BOEMRE (formerly MMS)

"Culturally, we viewed wetlands during much of that era as wasteland," Davis says, "and even though the people who lived in those regions knew the bounty that came from it, when somebody finally comes to you and says, 'How would you like to make four times more money than you've ever made in your life? How would you like to have a shot at a different future?' It's hard to say no. That looks like progress."

But Davis says the price of that progress wasn't acknowledged — until now.

Louisiana's wetlands are disappearing at an alarming rate of 25 square miles a year. If that continues, an area the size of the state of Rhode Island will be under water by 2050.

Most scientists say oil and gas activity is responsible for about one-third of the state's total land loss.

Looking back, Chauvin has seen it happen in Terrebonne Parish.

"They came up in here and they dug bayous all over the place, cut across the marsh maybe a mile, two miles," he says. "And then at the end of that they'd come set a rig right there. So our marsh was cut open all over the place. That's how it disappeared."

The straight line cuts through the marsh are in stark contrast to the natural curves of the water weaving through stands of cord grass.

Big Promises, Low Returns

Chauvin says despite early wildcat promises of oil riches, families like his don't have much to show for it. They have oil rights "all over" the parish, but he says the checks he gets are "pennies on the dollar."

"Sometimes they send us a check — it's almost laughable — they send you a check: $10, $15, $20," he says.

He tells the story of an uncle who let the state build a levee behind his house near Lake Boudreaux. The 14 acres of land he had on the other side disappeared into the water.

Annual Percentage Change In Louisiana Shrimpers

The number of Louisiana shrimpers from 1980 to 2007

"And then the rig came one day," Chauvin says. It was drilling where the uncle's land once was. When he protested, the state said it was part of the lake now.

"It's almost like they stole it from him," Chauvin says.

He wonders now what might have been different if the powers that be had listened to his grandfather 70 years ago.

"Five generations later, here we are," he says. "Are they going to have a sixth one? I really don't know. Is this place going to exist another 20 years from now down here? I really don't know."

This story was produced for broadcast by Evie Stone.

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