The Gulf seafood industry is in a free fall – particularly in Louisiana, which once produced nearly 40 percent of all seafood caught in the continental United States and $2.3 billion in revenue. Those glory days are are now just a memory, and they may never be recaptured. For the past two years, there’s been precious little Gulf seafood to bring to market – ever since BP’s blownout Macondo Well began spewing more than 200 million gallons of crude in April 2010 just 50 miles off the Louisiana coast.
The docks and marinas in hard-nosed fishing communities like Pointe-aux-Chenes and Venice, Louisiana, should be bustling this time of year, but today they are eerily quiet and undisturbed, like a world frozen in perpetual limbo – waiting, hoping, praying for the Gulf’s once-bountiful (even legendary) fisheries to produce again. Current reports from up and down the coast indicate the situation is dire indeed.
The oysters have been wiped out. The harvest for 2010 was the worst in more than four decades. And there’s been little improvement since then as oystermen continue to report catches down as much as 75 percent, from Yscloskey to Grand Isle. Some estimates put this year’s harvest at roughly 35 percent of the normal yield – and that’s if we’re lucky. Crab catches are in steep decline. Brown shrimp production is down two-thirds. And the white shrimp season was even worse, leading to descriptions of “worst in memory” and “nonexistent.”
Dahr Jamail, a reporter for Al Jazeera, has been covering the BP spill since the early days of the disaster. His most recent article focuses much-needed attention on this pivotal time for Gulf fishermen, as they face drastically depleted catches and weigh whether to join in BP’s $7.8 billion “class settlement” or sue the oil giant individually (see link to article at bottom). This is a huge story that the American media has completely overlooked. The survival of tens of thousands of Gulf fishing families hangs in the balance. I find it enormously ironic, not to mention hugely disappointing, that it took a journalist based in Qatar to get this story out. Why did we need a reporter to travel halfway around the world to write this article? Anyway, here’s how Mr. Jamail sets up this immensely important story:
Hundreds of thousands of people living along the US Gulf Coast have hung their economic lives on lawsuits against BP.
Fishermen, in particular, are seeing their way of life threatened with extinction – both from lack of an adequate legal settlement and collapsing fisheries.
One of these people, Greg Perez, an oyster fisherman in the village of Yscloskey, Louisiana, has seen a 75 per cent decrease in the amount of oysters he has been able to catch.
“Since the spill, business has been bad,” he said. “Sales and productivity are down, our state oyster grounds are gone, and we are investing personal money to rebuild oyster reefs, but so far it’s not working.”
Perez, like so many Gulf Coast commercial fisherman, has been fishing all his life. He said those who fish for crab and shrimp are “in trouble too”, and he is suing BP for property damage for destroying his oyster reefs, as well as for his business’ loss of income.
I applaud Mr. Jamail for taking the time to travel to a number of fishing towns to hear from the people who have worked the Gulf waters their entire lives. What he heard, across the board, were stories of hardship and despair and fear of lost livelihoods. More from Dahr Jamail’s report:
“I was at a BP coastal restoration meeting yesterday and they tried to tell us they searched 6,000 square miles of the seafloor and found no oil, thanks to Mother Nature,” Tuan Dang, a shrimper, told Al Jazeera while standing on a dock full of shrimp boats that would normally be out shrimping this time of year.
“Normally I can get 8,000 pounds of brown shrimp in four days,” he explained. “But this year, I only get 800 pounds in a week. There are hardly any shrimp out there.” Dang’s fishing experience has been bleak.
When he tried to catch white shrimp, he said he “caught almost nothing”.
He is suing BP for loss of income, but does not have much hope, despite recent news of an initial settlement worth more than $7bn. “We’d love to see them clean this up so we can get our lives back, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon.”
His experience during his last shrimping attempts left him depressed. Song Vu, a shrimp boat captain for 20 years, has not tried to shrimp for weeks, and is simply hoping that there will be shrimp to catch next season.
“The shrimp are all dead,” he told Al Jazeera. “Everything is dead.”
These are the same grim reports we heard months ago when shrimp season was in full swing on the Gulf. Consider this for consistency from an Oct. 11, 2011, New York Times report by Campbell Robertson:
The dock at Bundy’s Seafood is quiet, the trucks are empty and a crew a fraction of the normal size sits around a table waiting for something to do. But the most telling indicator that something is wrong is the smell. It smells perfectly fine.
“There’s no shrimp,” explained Grant Bundy, 38. The dock should smell like a place where 10,000 pounds of shrimp a day are bought off the boats. Not this year. In all of September, Bundy’s Seafood bought around 41,000 pounds.
White shrimp season began in late August, and two months in, the shrimpers here say it is a bad one, if not the worst in memory. It is bad not just in spots but all over southeastern Louisiana, said Jules Nunez, 78, calling it the worst season he had seen since he began shrimping in 1950. Some fishermen said their catches were off by 80 percent or more.
Gulf fisheries are failing. Some scientists believe they have already collapsed, and they may not recover for years. That is the reality that BP and District Court Judge Carl Barbier must consider when assessing future damages to Gulf fishermen. More from Mr. Robertson’s NYT report:
While cautioning that his study is incomplete, Dr. van der Ham speculated that certain compounds in the oil may have stunted the shrimp’s growth rate, and that the large numbers he found last year might have never made it out into the gulf to spawn, thus explaining a missing generation.
“There are numerous lines of evidence now that are sort of lining up that chronic exposure to this material could be problematic,” said James Cowan, a professor in L.S.U.’s department of oceanography and coastal sciences.
Those who work in the gulf seafood industry, as well as their lawyers, have watched closely for signs of a species collapse similar to the one that decimated the herring fishery four years after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. The causes of even that collapse remain a matter of dispute, but it is often cited as an example of the delayed disaster that shrimpers and others fear.
This concern was stoked further by a recent study by L.S.U. researchers that reported that a species of fish abundant in Gulf marshes was showing signs of cellular damage, problems typically due to exposure to oil. The functions of the fish, a minnow called the killifish, have been affected in ways that could harm reproduction, the study found.\
Anybody who thought 200 million gallons of oil and 2 million gallons of toxic dispersant somehow weren’t going to have a devastating and lasting impact on Gulf marine life needs to check back in with reality. More from Dahr Jamail’s report:
[Dr Ed Cake, a biological oceanographer and a marine and oyster biologist] recently told Al Jazeera that many of the Gulf fisheries “have already collapsed” and the only question is “if or when they’ll come back”.
“If it takes too long for them to come back, the fishing industry won’t survive,” he added.
Given that after the Exxon Valdez oil disaster in Alaska in 1989, herring have still not come back enough to be a viable fishing resource, this does not bode well for the Gulf seafood industry, whose fisheries are – according to scientists like Cake… – still in the initial phase of collapse.
It’s going to be a long road to recovery for the Gulf, and we must ensure that our local fishermen are fairly compensated for their lost income and livelihoods. These people are fighting for their survival.
In closing, I’d like to commend Dahr Jamail and Al Jazeera for continuing to expose the truth behind the ongoing disaster on the Gulf Coast. We are grateful.
Read Mr. Jamail’s report for Al Jazeera here: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2012/03/20123571723894800.html
Read the New York Times report by Campbell Robertson here: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/11/us/gulf-shrimp-are-scarce-this-season.html
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