MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The giant oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has dealt a harsh blow to communities up and down the coast - threatening wildlife, fisheries and tourism in parts of all five Gulf states. But the disaster is particularly alarming for people who live on the fragile edge of Louisiana. For decades, they've battled to save a vanishing land.

In part one of an ongoing series, The Disappearing Coast, NPR's Debbie Elliott follows one family of Cajun shrimpers as they adapt to this latest threat.

Mr. David Chauvin:�Hey, you gonna pick up those lifejackets?

Ms. KIM CHAUVIN: Yeah.

Mr. CHAUVIN: Okay.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: David Chauvin is seeing his wife, Kim, out the kitchen door. She's rushing off to attend a BP safety meeting. Instead of selling shrimp from the dock behind their house, the former high school sweethearts are now running a fleet of 25 shrimp boats that have been converted to skimmers.

Mr. CHAUVIN: One year you go from pulling trawls to oil booms. And you can even imagine, if I had the weirdest dream I'd ever had, and the scariest dream I've ever had, I don't think I could even imagine something like this. Yeah. I mean, I went from carrying, delivering shrimp around to now I deliver personnel and supplies for BP around.

ELLIOTT: The Chauvins live in their namesake, Chauvin, Louisiana, a small stretch of dry land just off Lake Boudreaux in Terrebonne Parish. They own the Mariah Jade Shrimp Company and have three large shrimping vessels, built by David and his father, Anthony.

Mr. CHAUVIN: All three of my children is what all three of my boats are named after, yeah. Mariah, so we've been bringing her aboard the Mariah Jade since she was a baby. My wife and my daughter and my two sons, they would come with me all summer long.

ELLIOTT: The sons, who used to splash around as toddlers in the boat's saltwater tanks, now captain two of the shrimp trawlers. And 14-year-old Mariah Jade helps her mom manage the loading dock out back where other local fishermen bring their harvest. Shrimping has been a family affair for the Chauvins for five generations. David's great-grandfather, Cap Chauvin, was doing it long before oil was discovered off the Louisiana coast.

Today, oil rigs are as common as shrimp trawlers. David Chauvin says he never realized how devastating a spill could be. It came into focus those first days after the Deepwater Horizon exploded, when he was approached by a representative from BP.

Mr. CHAUVIN: This thing was actually still burning offshore. And he explained to me the situation, how they had never had this happen in this amount of water. And trying to fix this problem is probably just as bad as trying to fix it on the moon. So my heart sank in my chest, and I'm thinking, okay, how bad is this gonna be?

ELLIOTT: The man asks him to assemble a team of shrimpers to help with the cleanup.

Mr. CHAUVIN: And at that time, I mean, we weren't affected at all. The boats were still fishing, our season had just started to crank up. So I said, I'll tell you what, I said, let me pray on it, let me sleep on it, and I'll get back with you first thing in the morning. And that night I didn't sleep at all.

ELLIOTT: For 21-year-old son, David Chauvin Jr., the decision was clear.

Mr. DAVID CHAUVIN, JR.: Well, I mean, it was either go shrimping or go save a coastline.

ELLIOTT: A coastline that was already in peril. Louisiana loses the equivalent of a football field of land every 15 minutes - nearly 25 square miles a year. David Chauvin Sr. says in his 20 years of fishing the Gulf, he's seen the land vanish.

Mr. CHAUVIN: As those Barrier Islands disappeared, well, now you get actually get wave action that used to wash up on the beaches, actually travels all the way into the marsh areas now. And the saltwater, of course, killed all the oak trees. Oak trees need fresh water. There are places that we fish and drag the nets now, you can hang the nets, and tear the nets and those are actually oak trees where there was land at one time.

ELLIOTT: You can see why it's happening in the marsh due south of Chauvin.

(Soundbite of boat)

Professor ALEX KOLKER: So, here we are, right, we're leaving from (unintelligible) and we'll just give you a quick tour around the marshes.

ELLIOTT: The disappearing coast is a field of study for Alex Kolker, an assistant professor at the Louisiana Universitys Marine Consortium. He navigates a small boat through the deep green grass that stretches for miles around.

Prof. KOLKER: The story is this area is - it's sinking. And of course, you know, some of this wetland loss is part of the natural delta cycle, right? You should have areas of natural growth and decay. The problem is we've accelerated the decay and cut off the growth.

ELLIOTT: Cut off the growth with levees and navigation channels that choke off the sediment that would naturally flow from the Mississippi River to feed the marsh. And accelerated the decay by carving up wetlands for industrial purposes like oil and gas exploration. You can see the results where broken-up patches of marsh dot what is now open water.

Prof. KOLKER: The scale of the wetland loss here is tremendous. We've lost something close to 20 percent of the wetlands of the Mississippi Delta over the last century. So that's an area about 2,000 square miles.

ELLIOTT: Coastal activists say if there's anything good to come from the BP oil spill, it's that restoring Louisiana's coast now appears to be on the national agenda. They believe they finally have an advocate in the White House, now 50 years after scientists first realized how fast Louisiana's coast was disappearing.

Still, there are competing ideas about what coastal restoration would look like. For instance, putting back what has been lost or simply stopping the decline? And now there are fears the oil washing ashore will only accelerate the problem. For the Chauvins the problem is more immediate.

Mr. CHAUVIN, JR.: So it's a tragic thing, I ain't gonna lie.

ELLIOTT: David Chauvin, Jr.

Mr. CHAUVIN, JR.: This is the only way of life that me and my brother and my daddy, my papa, his daddy, we all knew. This is something that - as matter of fact, this is all I knew. I didn't go to school. I quit in seventh grade. This is all I knew. Engines, trawls, everything you can put on a boat. I think the only time I didn't go shrimping was from 18, I had worked two years in the oil field and that ain't for me. I like trawling. That's just me.

ELLIOTT: Now he's trawling for oil, trying his best to save what he knows. The well blew on April 20th, and by April 30th, the Chauvins were running task force one in what would develop into BP's Vessels of Opportunity program, using local fleets to fight the oil.

David Chauvin Sr. says it's been good to have that work, but he's wondering what will become of the shrimp and his family's future.

Mr. CHAUVIN: That would be the scariest part out of all of this, that shrimping as we know it would be over with. It could cost me my heritage.

ELLIOTT: David Chauvin's fear today echoes the sentiment of his great grandfather Cap, more than a half century ago, when oil men first set foot in the bayou.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

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