High tide, and the remains of a late summer storm, and it is hard to
tell on this strip of land between the Mississippi and the marsh where
land ends and water begins. It was here - in the most southerly reaches
of Louisiana on terrain that is slowly sliding into the sea - that oil from BP's Macondo well first started coming ashore, about a week after the 20 April explosion on the Deepwater Horizon. Eleven men were killed when the drilling platform blew up.
And it is here where local people will take the most convincing that the worst of the oil spill is behind them and that recovery is under way.
Obama's point man on the spill, the US Coast Guard's former commander,
Thad Allen, said at the weekend that the well no longer posed any threat
to the Gulf. Crews will begin the last few remaining operations needed
to abandon the well this week.
People here live and die by the
water. On a fine day the docks in Venice empty out, with seaworthy boats
and able-bodied crew off to look for oil contamination, at sea and in
the marsh grass.
No one, it seems, believes the assurances from
the White House or government scientists that the oil is largely gone.
And no one really believes BP when oil company executives say they will stay in Louisiana for the long haul.
They have seen one exodus already, just before Tropical Storm Bonnie blew through, about a week after the well was capped in mid-July. BP evacuated work crews and boats; many have not returned.
the oil's out there," said a captain of one of the air boats chewing
through the marsh. When the water is clear the oil pops out like a giant
black teardrop. He said the air boats were carrying away up to 3,000
white plastic trash bags of oiled sand from a nearby section of marsh
each day. "We'll be here for at least a year - if they still want us,
The autumn shrimping season opened on schedule on 16
August and the authorities have steadily been opening up more of the
Gulf for fishing.
About 83% of US waters in the Gulf are now open for fishing. The first
tests on shrimp, swordfish and tuna hauled out of the Gulf showed no
traces of oil.
But Acy Cooper, who wears a shrimpers' white rubber
boots even on days when he is not fishing, is possessed by a powerful
sense of dread. How can we know for sure that the shrimp is safe from
crude or its toxic components? He has seen oil in certain shrimping
"We are only going to get one shot at this. If we don't do
it right, we are going to be in big trouble if any tainted shrimp gets
on the market," he said. "We don't want to get anything on the market
that is going to kill us in the long run."
Not even the most
stringent testing can ensure that fishermen stay out of oiled waters -
not when some fishermen have been out of work since late April. "Some
people are so hungry they are going to do what they can to survive,"
Already the local economy is being transformed. On
noticeboards, cards for mental health services and lawyers offering to
sue BP are tacked on top of advertisements for fishing guides. It is
getting harder to find a market for fish.
The other day George
Barisich, the head of the United Commercial Fishermen's Alliance, had to
drive all the way into Mississippi before he could find a processor who
wanted his shrimp. He said he was reduced to selling for just $1.40
(90p) per pound.
Officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency have been on local radio shows, such as Talk of the Bayou, trying to persuade fishermen like Cooper they have nothing to fear.
"So far we haven't seen a bit of evidence the oil is getting real deep in the marsh," said Jacqueline Michel, a NOAA biochemist.
22 of the 2,000 water samples taken from the Gulf contained traces of
oil, and none has permeated deep into the wetlands, which are breeding
grounds for shrimp.
The callers were not buying it, and neither
was Cooper. He worries that the last few months may have ruined the
fisherman's life for some.
Although local people complain that BP
gave too many jobs to outsiders rather than locals for cleanup work,
some taken on have become used to earning good money - even when they
were waiting around at the marina - on the oil company's "vessels of
opportunity" program for the cleanup.
Cooper is worried they may give up on shrimping, now that it's such an uncertain occupation.
"We are on the verge of losing this industry," he said. "The chain is broken with the vessels of opportunity."
Al Sunseri that chain stretches back to 1876 when his family set up the
P&J Oyster Company on the edges of New Orleans' French quarter.
still turns up for work at 4.30am, but there are no workers shucking
oysters on the loading dock. Eleven people have been let go.
oysters are a vanishing commodity. Those oysters not killed by the oil
were finished off by the Louisiana government's decision to flood the
Gulf with fresh water to try to keep the oil offshore.
occupies his time taking orders on a clipboard, trying to mollify the
desperate chefs who are his main customer base. He is running
dangerously low on shucked oysters.
He asks callers if they could
get by with a smaller order. "I am just going to have to tell people I
don't have them and that is not something that I am used to doing," he
The shortage has pushed the price of oysters in the shell up
40% since the spill. That is too rich in the depths of a recession -
even for a luxury product. Sunseri also worries that what oysters he can
find are of variable quality.
"I know they say about 40% of the
oyster growing area is open but as far as productive areas, it is maybe
about 15%," he said. "We don't have babies, and we don't have the
He moves over to a tabletop display of oyster
shells. Those that are being harvested are about half normal size.
"These would ordinarily not be harvested for another year," he said.
"They really should be in there developing. The few little oysters that I am selling right now are really inferior."
industry cheerleader Mike Voisin, who chairs the Louisiana Oyster Task
Force, admits it will be three years before the oyster beds resettle.
Until then, he says, the harvest will probably fall to half of the usual
113,000 ton annual take.
The timespan is depressing for
Sunseri. He said he is telling his children: "Your daddy does not care
if this business fizzles away. Don't feel the burden of carrying this
For Ryan Lambert, who once counted himself the biggest
fishing charter operator around Venice, such acceptance is unthinkable.
He is much too angry to be resigned.
The spill left him with a
calendar showing week after week of canceled bookings, gutting a
business that once brought in $1.3m a year.
By BP's reckoning
though, his losses were just $66,000. Lambert is furious. He said he has
paid his accountant hundreds of dollars to meet BP's demands for
documentation. "I shouldn't have to fight for the money that is owed
me," he said. "I am not the bad guy here. They are the ones who ruined
it for me, not vice versa. For me to have to fight for them to pay me
for what they did makes me sick."
He is also worried sick that the
fish will start disappearing, as they did in the years after the Exxon
Valdez spill in Alaska, and that his business will be dealt a slow,
He built his company from scratch, starting from
his love of bass fishing; now his clients troop into his fishing lodge
from all across the country. He rebuilt once before, after Hurricane
Katrina. He is not sure he can do it again, or wait for the Gulf to make
a full recovery.
"I am 52 years old. I can't wait 20 years for them to clean things up."
feels certain BP will pull out much sooner. "The well will be stopped,
and then they will hang around until the oil stops coming up on the
beaches, and then they will be gone," he said.
don't clean will be left to me and the microbes and Mother Nature until
all of a sudden we won't be America's best fishery any more.
"This will be history some day, and I will still have that problem."
Voices on the ground
television they are saying all the time that there is no oil. What BP
did is that they succeeded in buying off the White House and Congress
and most of the senators, and now they are buying off the networks'
-- Dean Blanchard, shrimp magnate
oil is still very in the coastal areas, it's still coming up along the
beaches, and it's in the bottom offshore as well as in the bays and
estuaries. A lot needs to be addressed before BP says it has all been
-- Wilma Subra, chemist
only silver lining that is going to come out of this is that the government and the country are going to understand the importance of the
-- George Barisich, president, United Commercial Fishermen's Association
'Ironically, this catastrophe may in the end run have more impact on oil leasing programs than on
the Gulf of Mexico ... We recognize now that we have something much
more like a nuclear reactor on our hands than a wood-burning stove and
that is an awareness that is new to the federal government, new to the
public, and new to Congress'
-- Oliver Houck, environmental law professor at Tulane University