NEW ORLEANS - Massive slicks of weathered oil were clearly visible near Louisiana's fragile marshlands in both the East and West Bays of the Mississippi River Delta during an overflight that included an IPS reporter on Oct. 23. The problem is that, despite this, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has left much of the area open for fishing.
Four days prior, on Oct. 19, federal on-scene cleanup coordinator for the BP oil disaster, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft, declared there was little recoverable surface oil in the Gulf of Mexico.
Both bays cover an area of roughly 112 square kilometres of open water that surround the Southwest Pass, the main shipping channel of the Mississippi River. While East Bay remains closed for fishing, West Bay was open for fishing when IPS spotted the oil on Oct. 23, despite the fact that the day before a BP oil cleanup crew had reported oil in West Bay to a local newspaper.
"They are literally shrimping in oil," Jonathan Henderson, the Coastal Resiliency Organiser for the environmental group Gulf Restoration Network, who was also on the flight, exclaimed as our plane flew over shrimpers trawling in the oil-covered area.
Others remain concerned about the use of toxic dispersants that BP has used to sink the oil.
"Potential ecosystem collapse caused by toxic dispersant use during this disaster will have immediate and long-term effects on the Gulf's traditional fishing communities' ability to sustain our culture and heritage," Clint Guidry of the Louisiana Shrimp Association told IPS.
"This has been an exercise in lessening BP's liability from day one. I think we're moving into a situation where the PR is saying the area is safe to fish and it's safe to eat, but that's not the reality," he said.
The waters in the East and West Bays are under the jurisdiction of Louisiana's Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF), while waters further from the coast are under federal jurisdiction. LDWF does receive input, however, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Earlier on the same day IPS spotted the oil, a spotter pilot for LDWF had flown over the same area and told Southern Seaplanes there was no oil.
"He is the spotter for LWDF and saw that bay, and it is still open," Henderson told IPS. "He should have closed the bay for fishing. So now you can see how sophisticated they are in tracking this. Either this guy is completely incompetent, or has an agenda to keep as much of Louisiana's waters open for fishing as he can, whether there is oil or not. I don't see how he could have flown down there today and not seen it. It's criminal."
When IPS called the LWDF requesting to talk with the LDWF oil spotter, department officials said "that person is not available to comment".
The LWDF website has a number to call in order to report oil sightings. When IPS called that number, the call was answered by a BP response call centre.
On Oct. 23, the Coast Guard claimed that the substance floating in the miles-wide areas of West Bay appeared to be "an algal bloom".
Lt. Cmdr. Chris O'Neil said a pollution investigator for the Coast Guard collected samples from the area, and while they had yet to be tested, "based on his observation and what he sees in the sample jars, he believes that to be an algal bloom."
Fishermen who have traveled through and fished in the area over the weekend, however, refuted these Coast Guard claims.
"I scooped some up, and it feels like oil, looks like oil, is brownish red like all the dispersed oil we've been seeing since this whole thing started," fisherman David Arenesen, from Venice, Louisiana, told IPS.
"It doesn't look like algae to me. Algae doesn't stick on your fingers, and algae isn't oily," he said. "The area of this stuff spans an area of 30 miles, from Southwest Pass almost all the way over to Grand Isle, and runs very far off-shore too. We rode through it for over 20 miles while we were going out to fish, I dipped some up, and it's oil."
Arenesen saw the substance on Friday, the same day it was reported by the Times Picayune newspaper in New Orleans.
"It was at least an inch thick, and it went on for miles," Arenesen said, adding, "It would be easy to clean since it's all floating on the surface."
IPS spoke with Gary Robinson, a hook and line mackerel commercial fisherman working out of Venice who was also in the substance in question recently.
"I was out in West Bay on Oct. 22, and I was in this thick brown foam, about five inches thick, with red swirls of oil throughout it, and there was a lot of it, at least a 10-mile patch of it," Robinson said while speaking to IPS on his boat. "I've never seen anything like that foam before, the red stuff in it was weathered oil, and there was sheen coming off my boat when I came back into harbor. I'm concerned about the safety of the fish I'm catching."
Dean Blanchard, of Dean Blanchard Seafood Inc. in Grand Isle, Louisiana, spoke with IPS about the Coast Guard claim that the substance was likely algae.
"Hell, we got oil coming in here every day, it's all around us, we know what oil is," Blanchard said. "The Coast Guard should change the colour of their uniform, since they are working for BP. We've known they are working for BP from the beginning of this thing. None of us believe anything they say about this oil disaster anymore."
"Everyone, including the feds, are talking about the fact that less of the oil actually reached the surface than was below," Captain Dicky Tupes of Southern Seaplanes told IPS, "And now we're seeing some of that submerged oil surface here. How long will this go on?"
The East Bay area appeared to be completely covered in kilometres-long strands of weathered oil of various colors. While flying approximately 16 linear kilometres across the bay, IPS saw nothing but streaks of the substance across the surface.
"That oil is covering just about the entire length of Southwest Pass," Tupes said.
A recent month-long cruise by Georgia researchers reported oil on the sea floor that they suspect is BP's. While government officials question whether there is oil on the sea floor, the Georgia scientists say the samples "smelled like an auto repair shop".
The research team took 78 cores of sediment and only five had live worms in them. Usually they would all have life, said University of Georgia scientist Samantha Joye, who went on to call the affected area a "graveyard for the macrofauna".
"The horrible thing is they've been inundated with this oily material... There's dead animals on the bottom and it stinks to high heaven of oil," Joye added.
University of South Florida's Ernst Peebles said the oil on the floor if the Gulf "is undermining the ecosystem from the bottom up".