Fisheries feel the brunt of BP spill
Fisheries feel the brunt of BP Spill
by Ashton Daigle
Fishermen and local businesses along the coastal parishes of southeast Louisiana are feeling the impact of the oil spill that began following the April 20 explosion and collapse of British Petroleum’s (BP)Deepwater Horizon oil well.
To date, the beach at Grand Isle has been closed down as oil washes ashore. Meanwhile, oil also continues to filter into Barataria Bay, causing damage to already diminished barrier coastal islands that provide habitat for many species of birds, including the state bird, the brown pelican.
Anger, frustration and resentment are the prevailing sentiments of many fishermen in the coastal parishes, who perceive the response by BP officials, as well as federal and state government officials, as less than adequate.
John Tesvich, chairman of the Louisiana Oyster Task Force, is among those fishermen who fear for the worst, for both their livelihoods and for the environment as a whole.
“It’s very frustrating,” Tesvich said. “Oil is coming in shore now. More and more permanent impacts are occurring. We feel that BP and the agencies working with BP have not done enough to stem the oil and pick up the oil. We find ourselves on the short end of the stick. We’ve had no direction from BP, state or federal officials, or adequate remediation for our loss of business.”
Preliminary claims being paid out by BP, which range from $1,000 to $5,000, Tesvich noted, are not nearly commensurate to the losses, both actual and potential, that oyster fishermen face.
Tesvich estimates, there are approximately 10,000 commercial oyster fishermen in the state, many of whom have been affected by the oil spill. The oyster industry brings in approximately $300 million in the state annually, according to Tesvich.
“It’s an embarrassment and a shame when a business is responsible for someone’s loss and they are not coming forward to help on a larger scale,” Tesvich said. “Our own state seems tied politically. The state and our elected officials are not supporting our cause. They have not really rallied or brought significant pressure on BP. It’s all been lip service.”
Tesvich said he, along with fellow oyster fishermen and representatives from other fisheries, like crabbers and shrimpers, have tried on numerous occasions to meet, as an industry, with Governor Bobby Jindal and other state officials. But so far, Tesvich noted, that has not happened.
“What are you supposed to do when government fails you?” Tesvich said. “It makes you feel like you’re living in a totalitarian state.”
To complicate matters further, Tesvich and other oyster fishermen have reported that the state has opened several freshwater diversion streams, including Davis Pond, Bayou Lamoque, Bohemia and Caernarvon, which pump fresh water into the brackish and salt waters of Barrataria Bay and surrounding areas.
The move, Tesvich said, is meant to divert the flow of oil into the wetland areas. However, the intrusion of fresh water into the waters where the oyster beds are located kills the oysters.
“Our oysters are dying right now,” Tesvich said. “It’s clear we’re going to have significant business losses. If it actually helps, we understand.”
The problem, Tesvich said, is that there’s the possibility that BP may not be held accountable for fresh water losses.
“We’ve asked government officials to make it clear to us,” Tesvich said. “Is BP going to pay for fresh water losses? We’ve gotten no answers to this. All information seems to be on lockdown. There’s a lot of anxiety in the seafood industry as to how and who is going to make our industry whole again.”
With themes of disaster and inadequate response by both BP and the government running rampant, it’s hard for locals, as well as the national media (who have dubbed the BP spill “Obama’s Katrina”) not to draw parallels between the oil spill and Hurricane Katrina.
But Eric Hansen, who runs Chris’s Marina, in Port Sulfur, said the BP spill is a totally different monster.
“A hurricane just knocks things down,” Hansen said. “You can rebuild that. This … It’s just really hard to put into words. This is just devastating, shocking really. A lot of guys are already being put out of business. More will too if they don’t find a way to cap that thing off and stop the flow.”
However, Hansen said it was not unexpected.
“Since the rig went down and we knew it was spilling, we knew this was coming,” Hansen said. “The more it flows, unchecked every day, more of it makes it into Barataria Bay and that’s just disastrous.”
Hansen said that on a good day his facility typically takes in approximately 100,000 pounds of shrimp from area shrimpers. But as the state officials with the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and Department of Health and Hospitals continue to close shrimping zones down, more and more shrimpers are affected.
“Still though, I support the closures,” Hansen said. “We absolutely do not want to produce a product that’s tainted.”
It’s the long term effects of the spill, Hansen said, that concerns him the most, not just from the oil itself but also the chemical dispersants, like Corexit, that BP officials have used in unprecedented amounts beneath the surface of the Gulf waters to try to neutralize the effects of the gushing oil.
“The BP guys have admitted that this is the most dispersant they’ve ever used at those depths,” Hansen said. “They don’t even seem to know what the long term effects are going to be. Nobody does. That’s what scares me the most. Once you disrupt a cycle, the ecosystem, you’re just asking for trouble.”
Hansen said idea of an actual physical cleanup of oil from the wetlands is also frightening to him.
“Those areas are already fragile, and already seeing the effects from the oil” Hansen said. “But then you’re going to bring in a couple hundred guys and have them tromping along those banks, sinking down to their knees in water and mud. That’s going to erode those areas even worse.”
Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board agreed.
“Our main concern at this point is that they cap this thing,” Smith said, referring to the spill. “That would at least create some kind of hope. As long as it continues to flow, how can you give anybody any sense of hope? The minute’s it’s capped, we can maybe get a better sense of where we are. That has to be top priority.”
Meanwhile, his board will continue to promote the state’s seafood industry, which has an annual economic impact for the state of $2.4 billion. But promoting Louisiana seafood, particularly to other states, in the wake of the spill hasn’t been an easy task.
“Our brand has definitely taken a hit from this,” Smith said. “There’s misinformation just in and around the greater metro New Orleans area. It gets very confusing once you start moving into the interior states. People watch CNN or Fox news in other states, and they think we’re completely out of business. They’re not getting the whole story.”
As of May 25, Smith reported that 70 percent of the state’s coastal waters were still open for commercial fisheries.
“They’re still bringing in safe seafood,” Smith said, noting that he too also fully supports precautionary closures. “Our number one priority is the protection of our consumers. Department of Health and Hospitals, along with other agencies, are performing unprecedented testing of the waters.”
The next top priority, Smith said, is to make sure that fishermen who cannot go to work are compensated.
“A lot of our fishermen are shut down, out of business,” Smith said. “It’s just heart-wrenching. We’ve got to do all we can do to help these people. BP can’t just replace a year’s salary and expect life to go on for these folks.”
Smith noted that while shrimp, crabs and fin fish can, to a certain degree, swim away from danger, oysters are perhaps the most vulnerable of the state’s fisheries.
“The work, the effort, the time and money these people invest in building and cultivating these reefs and oyster beds is just tremendous, and it can’t be replaced with a year’s salary,” Smith said.
According to Smith, 30 percent of all seafood in the United States comes from Louisiana.
In addition to the economic value of the state’s seafood industry, Smith pointed out there is a very significant cultural importance too.
“More than almost anyplace I can think of in the United States, we are a people whose entire culture literally revolves around seafood,” Smith said. “This is all a lot of the fishermen in our state know. Their families have been doing this for generations. And, when you think about Louisiana cuisine and restaurants, many of our restaurants’ signature dishes are based on and made from Louisiana seafood.”
Commercial fishermen are not the only ones feeling the impact of the oil spill. Lodges and charter and fishing boat companies are dealing with it too.
Nash Roberts III, a charter fishing guide based out of Port Sulfur and the son of noted former WWL meteorologist, said due to closures of fishing grounds on the west side of the mouth of the Mississippi River he now has to launch from Empire to access Breton Sound.
He reported he lost 35 percent of his business in May and had 14 charter trips cancelled for the month. Furthermore, he said that 90 percent of his bookings for June are locals.
“Most of our bookings in the spring and summer months are usually guys from out of town,” Roberts said. “We’re not seeing much of that. As it stands now, we have nothing booked for July. It looks like we’ll survive May and June, but beyond that, it’s hard to tell what we’ll be facing long term.”
Roberts said he intends to try push forward with business without economic help from BP.
“Honestly, I don’t know anyone who has much faith in what BP says,” Roberts said. “I just don’t have a very positive feeling about BP’s economic response to this spill.”
Foster Creppel, managing partner of the Woodland Plantation, in West Point a La Hache, said his business is feeling the impacts too.
“This oil spill is screwing up everything,” Creppel said. “It’s impacting us in a very negative way. Typically this is our busiest time of year. Our numbers of fishermen have really begun to drop off.”
Initially following the spill, Creppel said he saw a bump in business due to contractors and members of the media booking lodging.
“That sort of filled the initial void left by the spill,” Creppel said. “The problem I’m seeing now is that the phone’s just not ringing. Usually, this time of year the phone is ringing off the hook with people booking for June, July and August. None of that is happening now.”
Creppel said the plantation’s dining area, which serves dinners by reservation too, is also feeling the impact too.
“Barataria shrimp are the best in the world,” Creppel said. “They just closed shrimping today again on the west side of the river. This run that I’m making now to the shrimp dock I use is probably one of the last I’ll be making this season.”
Creppel said he will likely be forced to buy his seafood from a wholesaler, but that will be only out of necessity.
“There’s no doubt about it, this is going to be tough on business,” Creppel said. “Approximately 65 percent of my business revolves around recreational charter fishing. And it’s not going to be tough on just my business but for all of us down here. If they don’t stop this thing soon, it’s going to be a very tough year. If it keeps on spewing out all over our wetlands, marshes and estuaries, for much longer there’s really no telling if we’ll ever fully recover. A lot of the damage that’s being done to this fragile ecological system is irreparable.”