Fishermen in Gulf ‘ghost town’ fear for future


Cisco’s Hideaway is not the place it once was. Business is down on last year and, one afternoon this week, the only patrons of the dark and smoky two-bit bar on the bayou were Ryan and Rodney, who were lamenting their community’s misfortunes since BP’s oil spill.

“There ain’t no turning point,” said Ryan, a former shrimper. “It’s all downhill.”

US President Barack Obama this week declared that the US was “finally close” to an end to the crisis prompted by BP’s gushing Macondo well as the oil company successfully began the process of plugging the well once and for all. But for many residents of Grand Isle, Louisiana, one of the communities affected worst by the spill, it can feel like the hardships are only just beginning.

The slug-shaped island, which you access by a long and twisting two-lane causeway built over marshes, relies heavily on tourism in the summer months, as holidaymakers flock to enjoy the wide, sandy beaches. Today, instead of swimmers and bikinis, there are piles of plastic bags, shovels, machines to wash the sand of oil and miles of orange plastic fences with signs saying “authorized personnel only”.

June Crosby, who has been working the cash register at the local Sureway supermarket for the past 13 years, says that takings are down by as much as 50 per cent compared with normal summers. “A lot of our regular visitors . . . haven’t come this year,” she says, as she bags some bread, ham and pickles for a rare customer. “It’s because of the spill.”

Fishing, one of the community’s mainstays, is still prohibited because of state and federal bans. Locals have no idea when authorities will lift them and still tell stories of oil lingering below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico.

Many fishermen have compensated their losses by joining “vessels of opportunity”, set up by BP since the spill. The programme, which employs fishing boats in the clean-up and pays fishermen about $200 for an eight-hour day and $2,000 a day for the use of a 45-foot vessel, has saved many families from ruin.

But Karen Hopkins, who works at Dean Blanchard Seafood, a wholesale buyer located in a boxy office above a bayou, estimates that only 65 per cent of local fishing boats are involved in the programme. “I know for sure that a lot of the people we work with can’t get on [the programme],” she says.

Meanwhile, her business has suffered. Between May 1 and the end of July, she bought 1.7m lbs of fish to the canning companies and restaurants who are her customers. During the same period last year, she bought 6.3m lbs.

Ms Hopkins says that the company has received $165,000 so far from BP’s compensation fund. But with profits down $3m in the period, she insists it is insufficient.

That is a common complaint in Grand Isle, a community of about 1,500 residents who live in clapboard houses resting on often implausibly high wooden stilts.

And, with growing optimism in Washington and elsewhere about the clean-up, the complaint is now increasingly accompanied by a concern that BP is going to wind down its presence. One distraught fisherman asks: “We’re getting some money now, but who is going to be there in a year when someone gets sick from the fish I catch and sues me?”

Curtis Thomas, BP’s local spokesman, concedes that handling of the compensation issue “has not been perfect”, even though his company has paid out 2,157 cheques for a total of $5.1m, without including larger claims.

He also admits that not all local fishermen have been able to join the “Vessels” programme. But he insists that concern about BP leaving or scaling back its operations is unfounded. “There is no rush to pull out of the area,” he says. “The company will be here financially . . . that means making people whole and compensating businesses for a long period of time.”

Even if it is, there is another worry: the federal government’s continuing moratorium on deepwater drilling, which is an important employer throughout the region. In a meeting this week in New Orleans, David Carmardelle, mayor of Grand Isle, implored Washington to lift the ban.

“It’s like a ghost town right now,” he said. “My fishing is gone, my oil fields are gone. We have no way of making a living.”

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

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