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

Now, with the offshore oil spill in the Gulf, some are asking the question, at what cost? NPR's Debbie Elliott has this story as part of our series, The Disappearing Coast.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: In the 1953 film "Thunder Bay," Jimmy Stewart, an oilman, comes to the Louisiana Bayou.

(Soundbite of movie, "Thunder Bay")

Mr. JIMMY STEWART (Actor): (as Steve Martin) Look down there. All you can see is water. But if you dream real hard, you can smell the oil. Can't you smell it?

ELLIOTT: 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.

(Soundbite of movie, "Thunder Bay")

Ms. JOANNE DRU (Actress): (As Stella Rigaud) They're buying the town. They'll spoil everything they touch. Oil crews with their filthy men and their filthy money.

ELLIOTT: 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.

Mr. ANTHONY CHAUVIN (Retired Shrimper, Boat Builder): I've always been a man to drag nets in the Gulf, you know.

ELLIOTT: Anthony Chauvin is a retired shrimper and boat builder, who now helps his son David run the Mariah Jade Shrimp Company in Chauvin, Louisiana. The family's roots are in the water.

Mr. CHAUVIN: 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.

ELLIOTT: It's always been a family business, dating back to Grandpa Cap.

Mr. CHAUVIN: He had five daughters and five sons, and his daughters would make nets. They would actually take it and make the webbing, and they'd make enough webbing for him to make a net to go trawling with.

ELLIOTT: 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.

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

Mr. CHAUVIN: When the oil company first came down here with the Cajuns, they didn't want the oil company. I remember my grandpa talking about this. And they couldn't stop them, you see. So, eventually what ended up happening, a lot of the oil people that came down here, started hiring them and paying them good money and kind of cleaned it up. And then we buddies together, so that's basically how it went. But at the beginning it wasn't like that.

ELLIOTT: By the time Anthony Chauvin was fishing, the oil rigs were just as much a part of the Gulf seascape as the brown shrimp he was chasing.

Mr. CHAUVIN: You know, we live with the oil companies down here, and we get along. And a lot of our friends work with them. And I have worked in the oil field. 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.

ELLIOTT: Often, fishing around the oil platforms, he says, where you could find the most shrimp.

(Soundbite of children)

ELLIOTT: A visit to the Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans, helps illustrate the intricate relationship between coastal Louisiana and the oil and gas industry.

(Soundbite of children)

ELLIOTT: School-age children file past the Gulf of Mexico exhibit, some surprised to see that it's sponsored by BP and a host of other oil companies.

Mark Davis directs the Institute on Water Resources, Law and Policy at Tulane University. He says what's inside the giant saltwater tank is telling.

Mr. MARK DAVIS (Director, Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy, Tulane University): You have sea turtles, you have rays, you have tarpon, all sorts of wonderful looking things. And you also have what appear to be the legs of an oil rig, because oil rigs, like any hard structure in the Gulf, attracts sea life. So, essentially becomes the basis for a reef.

So, 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.

ELLIOTT: When you look at this exhibit now and you think about what's happening in the Gulf, what's goes through your mind?

Mr. DAVIS: Well, the irony is almost overwhelming. I think it's a story that's fair to tell, but it's an incomplete story. It's suggests that this is a benign relationship and it's always been a very, very dicey relationship.

ELLIOTT: Dicey, because of the tradeoff between protecting the nursery grounds that produce a bountiful Gulf, and the need to industrialize a traditionally poor state. Dating back to early European settlers, Davis says, there's been a drive to tame and develop Louisiana's coast.

Mr. DAVIS: Culturally, we viewed wetlands, during much of that era, as wasteland. 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, and in part, it was. But it was progress with a price that wasn't actually acknowledged.

ELLIOTT: Until now. Louisiana's wetlands are disappearing at an alarming rate -25 square miles a year. If that continues, an area the size of the state of Rhode Island will be under water by 2050. And most scientists say oil and gas activity is responsible for about one-third of the state's total land loss.

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

Mr. CHAUVIN: They came up in here and they dug bayous all over the place, cut across the marsh, maybe a mile, two miles. 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.

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

Chauvin says despite early wildcat promises of oil riches, families like his don't have much to show for it. He tells the story of an uncle who let the state build a levy behind his house.

Mr. CHAUVIN: Right next to Lake Boudreaux, right here. So, he's got these 14 acres of land on the other side over there, and he watch it just disappear. It went under water. And then a rig came one day. The rig came in the back over there, and that's where his land was at. And he went talked to somebody, says, well, it's part of the lake now. It's almost like they stole it from him, you know what I'm saying? It's your land, but now the water took it, it belong to the state.

ELLIOTT: Chauvin wonders now, what might've been different had the powers that be listened to his grandfather 70 years ago.

Mr. CHAUVIN: Five generations later, here we are. 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.

ELLIOTT: Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

KELLY: This is NPR News.

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