ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Along the shorelines and bayous of Louisiana, fishing boats lay idle, their green and white nets empty. The oil fouling the Gulf is hurting many who make their living from the sea and not just fishermen.
NPR's Yuki Noguchi introduces us to the last remaining net maker in St. Bernard's Parish. Since the spill began, he has seen a 95 percent decline in his business.
Mr. ERWIN MENESSES JR.: This is a turtle excluder device. I am Erwin Menesses Jr. My nickname is Bubba, and I make nets for a living. Trawl nets, crawfish nets, any kind of net you can imagine. And I enjoy it.
YUKI NOGUCHI: Here, fishing is interwoven into the southern Louisiana lifestyle as tightly as one of his nets. Going back at least 200 years, Menesses says his family passed down the art of net-making.
Mr. MENESSES: What I do is I cut out a pattern and then sew it back together. If you could see these seams in it, is what the sewing I do on it.
NOGUCHI: Though the craft Menesses practices is now rare, the story of his business is not. Here, cottage industries like his have thrived. Many are small, often family-owned operations whose fates are tied to the fishing industry. All of those businesses are now in peril because of the oil spill.
Sitting on a dock on a pond behind his home, Erwin Menesses says he can imagine no better job.
Mr. MENESSES: Once you're a fisherman, it's kind of in your soul and a lot of people can't get rid of it.
NOGUCHI: What is it that gets into your soul?
Mr. MENESSES: Freedom. You're free.
NOGUCHI: Do you think that you have that freedom now?
Mr. MENESSES: No. I've lost it already, because I'm already working for BP.
NOGUCHI: Wearing life jackets and steel-toed boots and being subjected to drug tests, as he does now, are not part of normal life here, he says. Like many fishing industry workers, he's repurposed himself for cleanup efforts. Now he's using his net-making skills to make pompoms, like the kind cheerleaders use, which help detect incoming oil.
Mr. MENESSES: Some of the other fishermen take them out to Chandeleur Island and put them out on the line to test for oil coming in. And today, they found some. And it's not going to be good.
(Soundbite of weeping)
Mr. MENESSES: And it's awful.
NOGUCHI: Beneath his charming exterior, it's clear emotion runs raw for Menesses. And it's no wonder. Marshland butts up a mere quarter of a mile from his home, so does a levee down the street. Flooding following Hurricane Katrina chased him and other net makers out of the parish. Menesses and his family moved to Texas for a while but were drawn back to be by the water. Menesses returned and rebuilt this house tile by tile.
Mr. MENESSES: This is - there's pieces of tile that I had scrapped.
NOGUCHI: The storm and floods tore off his back porch workspace so now he works indoors. Menesses says much of the fishing business, including his, can't file a claim for lost business because they don't keep records of their income.
Mr. MENESSES: My business is a cash business. I have no claim. So BP is actually going to skate by and not have to pay for it.
NOGUCHI: Now he's torn about whether his 18-year-old son, Erwin III, also known as Trey, should take up net-making.
Mr. MENESSES: Katrina knocked us down. The oil may knock us out. I don't even know if I would want my son living here. Once the oil gets here, the smell is so bad. The oil smells so bad that it gets in your mouth -a chemical taste in your mouth and you can't wash it out with water.
NOGUCHI: Trey Menesses says the oil has made him unsure of the future of net-making. He plans to study business at the University of New Orleans in the fall.
Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, New Orleans.
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