NEW ORLEANS—Idled commercial fishermen Vincent Caronna and Shirley Roach stewed with colleagues on their docks in the Salt Bayou this week, lamenting that oil from the BP PLC spill had begun seeping into Lake Pontchartrain, a body of water Louisianans had hoped was safe.
“It will be a long time before they clean [the lake] up,” Mr. Caronna said, worried that storms could push more oil over manmade barricades and into the 630-square-mile brackish lake. “It will have to be completely restocked,” Ms. Roach said.
The fishermen, their livelihoods devastated by the damage oil has wrought in the Gulf of Mexico, offer some of the most pessimistic views. The oil’s encroachment into Lake Pontchartrain has been relatively minor, with tar balls and sheen being found. So it is as much a psychological assault as a physical one.
But the shallow lake, its southern edge ringed by New Orleans and its suburbs, is a crucial part of the area’s environmental, economic and cultural fabric. Massive efforts in the 1980s and ’90s cleaned the lake of decades of contamination from shell dredging and dairy farms. Since then, it has served as a recreational hub, a fishing grounds and a haven for sea life.
Last year, the lake yielded more than 4.8 million pounds of blue crab, shrimp and fin fish valued at nearly $4.5 million for fishermen, according to the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. It often provides safe fishing when the Gulf is too rough.
Since last weekend, tar balls and oil sheen have been reported on the lake’s eastern edge and in the Rigolets, a waterway that connects the lake to the Gulf eight to nine nautical miles away. Some officials say oil escaped an extensive network of protective piping called boom and skimmer boats only with the aid of recent storms and wind that pushed it into and through the Rigolets.
The state has closed 5% of the lake’s area to fishing because of the oil, and fishermen fret that the restrictions will be expanded.
Kevin Davis, president of St. Tammany Parish, which includes much of the lake’s northern shore and many commercial docks and marinas, said his parish had at its disposal 150,000 feet of boom, 25 skimmer boats and 100 small boats using nets to catch tar balls. Still, given all his constituents have gone through in the past five years, including Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and rebuilding in its wake, some are panicked about the lake’s fate.
“Some are even in tears because they were hoping this would be one of the areas that wouldn’t get hit because we’re so far inland, and that it might be one of the last fishing areas left,” he said.
Mr. Davis and other officials say that, absent a big storm, defenses for keeping the oil out of the lake should be effective. Local officials say areas of commerce other than fishing aren’t expected to suffer. “Because tar balls have gotten into the basin of the lake isn’t going to affect tourism in New Orleans at all,” said Kelly Schulz, a vice president at the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Still, the lake’s ecosystem is a concern. Lake Pontchartrain serves as a massive estuary with ideal conditions for young aquatic life. Because it is shallow—rarely more than 12 feet deep—sunlight can reach its floor to foster plants and grasses. That vegetation attracts shrimp larvae, crab larvae and other hatchlings from the Gulf.
Also in the lake are Rangia clam and other stationary creatures, fin fish such as flounder, and manatees that raise their calves and dine on the lake’s vegetation in the summer.
“The long-term concern is that if we did get heavier concentration of oil, what would it do to the food web in particular, starting from [stationary] organisms up the food web?” said Anne Rheams, executive director of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, a group chartered by the state in 1989 to help lead the lake cleanup. “That could impact the whole ecology of the lake.”