Written by Jen Finn
October 2, 2012
The fight of their lives
Nothing — not even hurricanes — could have prepared Louisiana's fishing communities for a disaster of these proportions
By John DeSantis
On a bright Sunday in June, 59-year-old Linwood Dupre of Terrebonne, Parish, La., spent $500 for fuel and ice when he learned of a new opening of some inshore waters nearby.
"All they've got is a few little browns, some bigger shrimp," said Dupre, who was ready to pack it in and cut his losses after a day. "There's two or three boats that were out here but they're gone now. Maybe the oil scared them away."
Even in places where the brown, gooey sludge leaking from the sunken Deepwater Horizon well is still miles away, the effects on fishermen and fishing communities, two months after the rig explosion that caused it all, are keenly felt.
Those fishing communities are dealing with a lot: shrimp, crab and oyster operations have halted because of fishery closures both precautionary and urgently required; a claims program in many cases has caused more confusion than comfort; a program promising to hire fishing boats for cleanup work is using only a quarter of those signed on; and crude oil continues to flow into the Gulf of Mexico. The long-term effects of the oil on ecology and economy can only be guessed at.
The story is the same throughout the parishes of Plaquemines and Jefferson, St. Bernard, Terrebonne and Lafourche, where a program called "Vessels of Opportunity" has become for many a waiting game of despair, and confusion over claim checks and unanswered questions about safety equipment have driven a deep wedge between BP and fishermen, who initially expressed understanding that the biggest environmental catastrophe in U.S. history was an accident.
There is fear as well because the processors and docks to whom fishermen sold their catches are shutting down one by one. It's unknown whether or when they can reopen.
Commercial and recreational fishing, with a few exceptions, are shut down from the Atachafalaya River eastward, nearly half the state's coast. Meanwhile Louisiana's $2 billion seafood industry struggles to assure consumers that what can be caught — primarily in upper inshore waters to the east and coastal waters to the west — is indeed marketable and safe to eat.
Julie Falgout, who once ran a trawler with her husband Dean but now works for Louisiana Sea Grant, said the current disaster is unprecedented in her experience.
"Our people have survived hurricanes and they have survived low prices because of imports, an economic downfall from which they were recovering," Falgout said. "What is different about this is that we just haven't dealt with anything like it.
"We were on a learning curve with dumping petitions, learning how the system works, but there were people to help whether you agreed with that approach or not. With the hurricanes, whether you agreed with how the disaster recovery was going or not, you still had a structure. And then this one, because this is so different, the structure is not there."
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