Gulf Fishermen Five Months Later: Still Bearing the Brunt of BP's Oil Disaster

Last week I traveled by boat through Bay Jimmy along the Louisiana Coast. The bay sits 117 miles away from where the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, and yet it is still covered in oil after five months of cleanup efforts.

The well may be sealed, but the hard work of recovery goes on. And local fishermen are paying the price for this prolonged disaster with their health and livelihood.

As we made our way past the oiled marsh grasses, I saw men in a fleet of little skiffs soaking up oil from the boom, and then cruising over to larger shrimp boats to unload their tanks. Not one of those guys had a respirator or was wearing protective gear.

I found the smell of fumes surprisingly powerful  in just the short time I was drifting there. These guys breathe that stuff all day long.  

This remains a hot topic down in the Gulf. Back when the Deepwater Horizon blowout occurred, NRDC provided respirators to cleanup crews. But as recently as last week, workers said BP told them not to wear them because having guys in respirators would make for bad photos.  

I am not a scientist, but after 10 minutes of sitting downwind of a heavily oiled site, I knew these guys were breathing in some nasty stuff. (To read what NRDC medical experts say about spill-related air pollution, click here.)

Many men are willing to risk their health for the simple reason they need the money. People told me that BP was originally paying out about $5,000 a month to local fishermen, but in August—right when kids were going back to school and needed new clothes and supplies—the payments dropped to $1,000. Think about it: that’s the equivalent of living on $12,000 a year. And with so many fisheries closed, fishermen had the added expense of buying food they used to catch for free.

Meanwhile, the claims process is painfully slow. Waiting for weeks to hear about a claim is a real hardship for people who don’t have a lot of savings. “After Katrina, we all borrowed money,” said Louisiana Shrimp Association Vice President Acy Cooper. “We all went over our heads to get back in. This was our year to come back.”

Except BP made that nearly impossible when its oil devastated fishing grounds. In my new book, In Deep Water: The Anatomy of a Disaster, the Fate of the Gulf, and How to End our Oil Addiction. I explain in detail exactly what the oil has done to Gulf fisheries. Shrimp larvae, for instance, shelter in the estuaries until they're big enough to head to deeper waters. Pollution that lingers in the wetlands threatens shrimp when they are young, weak, and vulnerable, and damage to this year’s hatchlings will impact populations for years to come. Oysters need three to five years to reach shucking size. The oyster beds were just beginning to recover after Katrina wiped so many out, but by June 2 nearly 37 percent of U.S. controlled water in the Gulf were off-limits to fishing.

Many fishermen welcomed the closures. If Louisiana seafood was found to be contaminated with oil, their market would evaporate and that would be far more damaging than a temporary closure.

But the mood among the fishermen I spoke to was anxious uncertainty. So many questions hang in the air. Would next year bring a boom harvest because the fishery was closed or would it be terrible because the larvae were killed? Could they trust the integrity of their catch if it was tested in a lab that worked closely with BP or were the findings compromised?

And perhaps the biggest one of all: would this disaster force them out of fishing for good?

“After Katrina, 40 percent of our fishermen exited the business,” said Robin Barnes, executive vice president for Greater New Orleans Inc, a regional economic alliance. “You don’t have people who have savings. You have zero slack capacity to survive something like this. A lot the guys will not survive the closing of the whole season.”

To say nothing of the four or five years it will take to really see what the BP oil spill has done to the long-term health of the Gulf and its residents.