Gulf Fisheries' Future In Doubt

Many fishermen and their boats are now working with BP in the oil spill cleanup effort, and the coastal waters which provide some of the most productive fishing are still closed. Even after all the oil is gone, it will likely be years before the Gulf fishing industry is as productive as it once was.

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This week, the federal government is reopening about a third of the Gulf waters that have been closed to commercial fishing. That doesn't mean commercial fishing will return to pre-spill levels. Many fishermen and their boats are working with BP and the cleanup effort, and the coastal waters which provide some of the most productive fishing are still closed.

As NPR's Greg Allen reports, even after all the oil is gone, it will likely be years before the Gulf fishing industry is as productive as it once was.

GREG ALLEN: Just a few miles from the Gulf, Franklin, Louisiana, is a good location for oyster processing. It's on Highway 90, convenient to oyster beds both in Louisiana and in Texas, to the west. AmeriPure set up shop here in 1998. It's a company that pasteurizes oysters using a special process, and then sells them shucked and on the half shell in California and other states that restrict raw seafood.

Co-owner Pat Fahey says before the spill, business was good.

M: I'd come into this cooler, and you'd have 40 pallets of sacks, oyster sacks. About a thousand oyster sacks would be here on a typical Monday, 80 to 100,000 pounds.

ALLEN: Today, the cooler and others here at AmeriPure are turned off, the doors propped open. The company laid off its 48 workers and shut down last month. With the closure of many oyster beds, Fahey says it became difficult to find enough product. But there's a bigger problem with oysters. In an effort to keep oil offshore, Louisiana diverted large amounts of freshwater from the Mississippi through passes and bayous.

For the oyster beds, that was deadly. Oysters thrive in brackish water - a mixture of salt and freshwater. The state's working now to determine how many oysters the freshwater killed, but Fahey expects a large-scale die-off.

M: The fact of the matter is, we've had tens of millions of gallons of water flushed into our estuaries since the end of April. Oysters just can't live in that.

ALLEN: In areas inundated by freshwater, Fahey says it will take three years, maybe more, before fishermen will be able to harvest oysters there. He's worried that could drive him out of business - though for now, he and his employees are getting checks from BP.

Scientists are just beginning to study the impact the BP spill is having on the ecosystems within the Gulf, from estuaries to deep-sea coral reefs. But marine biologist Wes Tunnell already has some idea of what to expect. He's studied the impact of a similar Gulf oil spill now for more than 30 years. In 1979, for 10 months, a blowout at the Ixtoc well dumped 10 to 30,000 barrels of oil a day into the Gulf, 60 miles off Mexico's Yucatan peninsula.

Thirty-one years later, Tunnell, a researcher at Texas A in Corpus Christi, says it's not hard to find areas still affected by the spill. Last month, he swam over a coral reef off the Mexican coast, that he's monitored for years. He says there's still a mat there of weathered crude from the Ixtoc spill.

D: I picked up a chunk of about, oh, five or six inches in diameter and broke it open, and it still had a sheen to it and, sure enough, it still had a pretty strong smell of petroleum - which surprised me.

ALLEN: Tunnell says there's also still weathered crude to be found in the area's mangroves, a tropical ecosystem similar to the marshes of Louisiana. These title wetland areas are the Gulf nurseries, and the places most sensitive to pollution. He says even the relatively small amount of oil that so far has hit Louisiana's marshes is likely to have a significant impact.

D: Ninety percent of the species in the Gulf of Mexico rely on estuaries. Shrimp and crabs and oysters are tied very directly to their life cycles within that salt-marsh area.

ALLEN: As for fishing, the best news might be that Tunnell and other researchers say they expect things to bounce back relatively quickly. Fish, like tuna, snapper and mackerel largely avoid oily or murky water.

A bigger issue, though, is public perception of seafood coming for the Gulf. Gerald Horst is a retired fisheries expert at Louisiana State University, now the author of several seafood cookbooks. He's concerned about how that perception will affect the Gulf seafood industry and the people who live along the coast.

M: Families sitting down and eating crawfish and eating frog legs and etouffees, gumbos, creoles, stews - I mean, the fabric of our communities is just so tightly knit in it, so intertwined with natural resource use, that I really worry about the future.

ALLEN: NOAA is conducting an extensive seafood inspection campaign, and says it will be reopening more fishing grounds as appropriate. But for shrimpers, fishermen and processors along the Gulf Coast, before they begin rebuilding their industry, they may just have to rebuild their seafood brand.

Greg Allen, NPR News.

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