For more than 70 days this summer, Bernard Picone’s life was reduced to a 12-foot-by-16-foot existence aboard his sturdy steel oyster boat, the Capt. Ethan.
After the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, his contract job cleaning oil and hauling boom in Barataria Bay put him across the Mississippi River and miles away from his home in Phoenix, a tiny enclave on Plaquemines Parish’s east bank. So he and three deckhands simply stayed on the boat full-time, sometimes anchoring in the passes off Grand Isle, occasionally retreating to Empire or Lafitte during rough weather.
“We’re fishermen. We stay on the boat a lot,” Picone said on a recent afternoon at the Pointe-a-la-Hache boat harbor near his home. “But we don’t ever spend that kind of time out on the boat.”
Cleanup work is over for Picone. His boat and 11 others in the work crew were laid off earlier this month.
Now, it’s back to virtual unemployment and a future that’s far from certain.
A lifetime of dredging oysters
Picone, 42, has dredged oysters for nearly 20 years. He has never had a boss, save for two years when he worked as an electrician in his 20s. But the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion April 20 changed that in an instant.
As fishing grounds were closed because of threat of oil contamination, fishers headed to safety courses in an effort to qualify for oil cleanup work. Some of the highlights: Don’t drink the oil; don’t put the oil on your body; don’t stick your hand between your boat and another boat.
Picone still chuckles when he thinks about it.
“I mean if everybody’s in a class and they’re holding all their fingers, we know not to put our hands between boats,” he said.
In June Picone got hired to do oil cleanup with the DRC Group, a BP contractor, joining thousands of others across the Gulf Coast who made the transition from independent fisher to contracted cleanup employee. The pay was $1,500 per day.
Picone was laid off Sept. 2, but his boat still bears the red inscription “MC 252,” signifying the Deepwater Horizon well location, Mississippi Canyon Block 252. Every boat involved with the spill response needed the insignia.
He’d like to erase the reminder of this summer, but there are grave concerns about the health of the oyster beds he fishes. So he’s keeping his options open.
“I just didn’t take it off yet, in case they call us back,” Picone said. “But when it’s time for it to get painted, it’s gone.”
Picone’s newfound free time is hardly a vacation.
Two weeks ago he spent two full days getting a fourth certification to be square with Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards, to try getting back on with one of BP’s cleanup contractors. At the same time he has been back and forth to various mechanics and welders, piecing together his second boat, the Capt. Scott. The goal is to get it back in shape before public oyster grounds reopen.
When that will be is a huge unknown.
The ripple effect
Typically the public grounds in Louisiana would open for a few weeks around this time of year, in late September, and then reopen in November. The September opening didn’t happen this year, meaning most oyster bedding grounds in southeast Louisiana won’t open until Nov. 15. Private leaseholders rely on the public seed grounds to cultivate their private oyster beds to grow new crops for future seasons.
Although numerous private lease zones have been reopened, oyster leaseholders across the state have reported large areas of dead oysters on the reefs. Most point to the effects of the freshwater diversions along the Mississippi River that the state opened in May in an effort to keep oil out of the estuaries.
Oysters require a delicate balance of salinity and freshwater for survival, and adjustments in either direction can cause them to perish. Leaseholders east and west of the river have been scooping up large amounts of “boxes” — empty, open oyster shells — where the animals have presumably died.
The lack of production, combined with so many fishers employed by BP, has had a ripple effect from seafood processors to restaurants, even to the welders, machinists and netmakers who supply the fishing industry.
“If you take out the fishing industry, you’d be surprised what else you take out with it,” Picone said.
For all these reasons, the constant talk of seafood promotion and marketing has perplexed Picone.
He thinks the state should focus most of its efforts on rehabilitating the environment: bringing new shells and seed oysters to repopulate reefs.
Picone was born in Gretna, but he has spent the bulk of his life in the marsh. As a child he moved to Grand Bayou, a village on the west bank of Plaquemines Parish, where the homes, still, are accessible only by boat. He remained there until Hurricane Katrina, which pushed him to Phoenix on the opposite side of the river.
“I’ve been doing this a long time, and you’ve got good years and bad years with any seafood. It’s just like farming,” he said. “But they want to talk about ‘promote, promote.’ Well, what if we ain’t got nothing to promote?”
Turning to crabs
The bad years for Picone were just beginning to fade when oil from BP’s deep-sea well came gushing out this spring. Katrina did a number on the marinas and boats of Plaquemines Parish; Picone’s boat was in a grove of trees nearly two miles from where he chained it before the storm.
But Katrina also decimated vast swaths of oyster reefs, smothering them with mud and killing nearly 70 percent of the crop on public grounds east of the river. With fewer powerful storms in recent years — Gustav and Ike hit farther west than Katrina — oyster yields had been steadily increasing.
Now many of those gains have been erased.
With the future of oysters up in the air, Picone is looking to plug the gaps with crabs. For now, he’s living off the pay he socked away working for DRC during the summer, investing in repairs to his boats.
Starting from scratch in the crab business isn’t a simple task. For one, he’ll need to refurbish a smaller boat. And buying a starter set of 400 crab traps — priced at $35 each — is a huge investment.
With the latest safety course under his belt, Picone has also been inquiring about getting back in the cleanup business. But without a doubt, what he wants to do is catch seafood.
“That’s why I’m out here working on my boats, because I want my boats to fish,” he said. “But I have to live.”
Whether Picone ends up fishing or going back to the oil cleanup will have a ripple effect up the supply chain. Kenneth Fox, who owns several of the private oyster leases that Picone fishes, admits that BP work is competition for him. But he understands the dynamics.
“This is like sure money compared to guessing if you are still going to be in the oyster business,” Fox said. “I don’t blame him for going. If I knew I could go out and make a thousand dollars a day, I’d be a damn fool to turn it down and go out there for a maybe.”
For now, Picone is still waiting for his claim for lost fishing income to be processed by Kenneth Feinberg, the administrator of BP’s $20 billion oil spill claims fund, who had initially promised that individuals would get their money within 48 hours.
Picone submitted the income tax information, the fishing trip tickets and the copy of his commercial license, but the money hasn’t come. He’s pretty sure his DRC income won’t last until oyster season. He’s hoping it won’t come to that.
“Put it like this, my 48 hours will be over by November,” Picone said.