On the Bayou

I was asked this week to write something for a fishermen’s publication about the BP oil spew. Here’s what I sent them:

I was in the Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana in the weeks after the Deepwater Horizon blew out. I’m an environmentalist; I work for Greenpeace. I was there to see for myself what was going on and to talk with people about the consequences of the blowout.

In those weeks, there was much we didn’t know. There’s much we still don’t know.
Here are some of the things I saw.

On Friday, 30 April, I stood at the edge of a crowd of fishermen as they met with NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco and Congressman Charlie Melancon (D-LA). The oil spill had yet to come ashore. Neither BP nor the federal government had been providing much information about the spill. (At that time, both BP and the feds were still claiming that only 5,000 barrels per day were leaking from the well.)

The fishermen had been waiting for hours to see Ms. Lubchenco. They were angry that the response they’d seen so far was inadequate. BP crews were stringing orange booms everywhere, then leaving them untended, to be washed away. If the booms should stop any oil, there were no skimmers there to collect it.

“No one’s asking us,” one fisherman told the administrator and the congressman. “We’re the people who know this coast and these bayous better than anyone. You can’t just string up a boom and leave. For one thing, there’s not enough boom to protect the whole coast. You need to ask us. We’ll tell you which bayous and inlets are most fragile and you have to string two or three layers of boom in front of those, because these booms you’ve got aren’t working.”

Mr. Melancon, to his credit, told the men, “Call my office. Tell us what we need to be doing. I’ll get your message through. That’s my job.”

I spoke with many fishermen in Louisiana. At that time – before the oil came ashore – there was still a good deal of denial. Maybe it won’t be that bad. Fishermen and the oil industry have lived side by side in Louisiana for a century. Many families include people who work at each trade. Fishermen and oil worker had always found ways to accommodate each other and in the first week of May, none of the fishermen seemed to want to believe that the oil industry had betrayed them as badly as the news reports coming in every hour seemed to indicate.

The more interaction the fishermen had with BP, however, the more they came to realize they had been betrayed. If they attended one of the sessions required to get cleanup work from BP, the fishermen were given contracts that indemnified BP should a fisherman be injured using BP equipment. In other words, you had to promise not to sue BP, even if they gave you shoddy equipment to work with. The fishermen rebelled and the clause was removed.

BP tried to force fishermen to sign gag orders, that in return for getting cleanup work from BP, they gave up their right to speak to the media. Some fishermen spoke out about the gag order and it too was removed. But the intimidation was still there.

When fishermen participating in the cleanup were sickened by the fumes from the oil slick (they were discouraged by BP from wearing respirators), BP’s CEO told the press that perhaps they’d gotten sick from eating bad seafood. Fishermen. Who can’t judge fresh seafood.

Several fishermen told me they felt the heads of various organizations representing fishermen were being bought off by BP. Such things have happened in Louisiana before. A fisherman who works in both the white and Southeast Asian fishing communities along the lower Mississippi said he felt BP was trying to drive wedges between the ethnic groups.

Boat captains in their forties told me what was the coastline when they started fishing was now four miles out to sea. They told me that Hurricane Katrina had knocked them to their knees and five years later, they were just getting back up. And now this.

The fishermen spoke of their fathers taking them out when they were young and how they were just starting to take their kids out. They wondered what would happen to the knowledge they have of shoals and currents, of when the various fish run and when they spawn. What would any of it be worth anymore? How much, if any would be worth passing along to another generation? Where would they go, what would they do if they couldn’t fish out of Venice or Buras or Port Sulphur anymore?

© Mark Floegel, 2010

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