Gulf fisheries in decline after oil disaster

Nearly two years after BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, fishermen and scientists say things are getting worse.

New Orleans, LA – Hundreds of thousands of people living along the US Gulf Coast have hung their economic lives on lawsuits against BP.

Fishermen, in particular, are seeing their way of life threatened with extinction – both from lack of an adequate legal settlement and collapsing fisheries.

One of these people, Greg Perez, an oyster fisherman in the village of Yscloskey, Louisiana, has seen a 75 per cent decrease in the amount of oysters he has been able to catch.

“Since the spill, business has been bad,” he said. “Sales and productivity are down, our state oyster grounds are gone, and we are investing personal money to rebuild oyster reefs, but so far it’s not working.”

Perez, like so many Gulf Coast commercial fisherman, has been fishing all his life. He said those who fish for crab and shrimp are “in trouble too”, and he is suing BP for property damage for destroying his oyster reefs, as well as for his business’ loss of income.

People like Perez make it possible for Louisiana to provide 40 per cent of all the seafood caught in the continental US.

But Louisiana’s seafood industry, valued at about $2.3bn, is now fighting for its life.

‘The shrimp are all dead’

Perez is not alone.

“They said they’d make things right and they never did,” said Nicholas Harris, a fourth-generation oyster fisherman in eastern Louisiana. “Business has been s****y, and BP kept low-balling us with how much money they said they’d give us for compensation, so we got our attorneys involved.”

Harris, like Perez, is suing the oil giant for property damage and loss of income.

His family has a 4,000-acre private lease for oysters, but it was destroyed when the State of Louisiana diverted fresh water from the Mississippi River in a failed attempt to flush BP’s oil from the oyster fishing grounds in his area.

The situation in Mississippi for shrimpers is nearly as grim.

“I was at a BP coastal restoration meeting yesterday and they tried to tell us they searched 6,000 square miles of the seafloor and found no oil, thanks to Mother Nature,” Tuan Dang, a shrimper, told Al Jazeera while standing on a dock full of shrimp boats that would normally be out shrimping this time of year.

Mississippi shrimper Tuan Dang is not catching enough shrimp to turn a profit – just one of many in the Gulf Coast seafood industry affected by the BP disaster [Erika Blumenfeld/Al Jazeera]

Dang’s fishing experience has been bleak.

“Normally I can get 8,000 pounds of brown shrimp in four days,” he explained. “But this year, I only get 800 pounds in a week. There are hardly any shrimp out there.”

When he tried to catch white shrimp, he said he “caught almost nothing”.

He is suing BP for loss of income, but does not have much hope, despite recent news of an initial settlement worth more than $7bn. “We’d love to see them clean this up so we can get our lives back, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon.”

Shrimp boat captain Song Vu is hoping that he will catch more shrimp next season, because the last times he fished he caught very few [Erika Blumenfeld/Al Jazeera]

Song Vu, a shrimp boat captain for 20 years, has not tried to shrimp for weeks, and is simply hoping that there will be shrimp to catch next season.

His experience during his last shrimping attempts left him depressed.

“The shrimp are all dead,” he told Al Jazeera. “Everything is dead.”

BP has ‘taken its toll’

Henry Poynot, the owner of Big Fisherman Seafood in New Orleans, has been selling seafood for 28 years.

Al Jazeera asked him how his business was doing.

“2010 was the worst year we’ve had in 15 years,” he said. “Then 2011 was worse than 2010. Some of this was the economy, but most of it is due to BP. BP has taken its toll.”

Seafood vendor Henry Poynot says people are buying less seafood than ever, a situation he blames on the BP oil disaster [Erika Blumenfeld/Al Jazeera]

Given that 20 per cent of the total US seafood production comes from the Gulf Coast – where the major commercial fishing ports bring in over 1.2 billion pounds of fresh seafood annually – this is not good news.

Poynot said that many people, even some of his employees, continue to be afraid to eat seafood from the Gulf, for fear of contamination by BP’s oil and dispersants.

“It’s hard to believe the impact of the spill,” Poynot added. “I have heard that some folks are still catching tar balls in their crab traps.”

Apparently, the fact that the State of Louisiana received $18m from BP for the Louisiana Seafood Safety Plan to test seafood, water and soil from across the coast is not helping to assuage fears.

Keith Ladner, a third-generation seafood processor in Bay St Louis, Mississippi, has it even worse.

“I’m worried about the entire seafood industry of the Gulf being on the way out,” Ladner told Al Jazeera in Biloxi, Mississippi. “We have taken constant hits like Katrina, the economy, and now BP. I’m now unsure how many of us will come back from this.”

Ladner reiterated what Al Jazeera has been hearing from fishermen, seafood processors and distributors all along the coast – that there has been a two-thirds drop in brown shrimp production, and white shrimp season was basically non-existent.

“The only brown and white shrimp we see now are from Texas or western Louisiana, where the oil didn’t impact directly,” he said. “And for oysters, Mississippi’s oyster reefs have been closed since the spill started. I have not purchased one single sack of oysters since the spill, and I won’t eat any from this area.”

Ladner was in the process of rebuilding his business after Hurricane Katrina completely devastated it, and was set to reopen new facilities on May 1, 2010.

BP’s oil disaster began on April 20, 2010.

“I’ve had no way to generate income because of the spill, and I’ve been shut down to this day,” he explained. “I’m waiting for the fisheries to come back, and I cannot reopen until, or unless, they do.”

Ladner’s business, which transported Gulf seafood to 15 states, remains closed. Ladner has filed a lawsuit against BP for loss of income. He remains wary about his future.

“Looking at the scene now, should I invest what I need to invest to get back to where I was before, if these fisheries don’t come back?” he asks. “We’re dead in the water until the fishermen go back to work. The whole economy will feel it.”

‘Worst crisis I’ve seen’

Fishermen and scientists continue to deal with the aftermath of BP’s disaster.

Louisiana’s oyster harvest in 2010 was the lowest in 44 years, due to BP’s oil disaster. Scott Gordon, Mississippi’s director of the Shellfish Bureau of the Office of Marine Fisheries, said in the summer of 2010, “I fully expect to have 100 per cent mortalities of the oysters in the western Mississippi Sound”. His predictions have come true [Erika Blumenfeld/Al Jazeera]

“We are in the worst crisis I’ve ever seen,” Brad Robin, a sixth-generation fisherman and seafood proprietor, told Al Jazeera last September, while out on a boat surveying the crippled oyster population where he fishes. “The [oyster] industry might do 35 per cent this year, if we’re very lucky.”

Dr Ed Cake, a biological oceanographer and a marine and oyster biologist, and Tom Soniat, a University of New Orleans oyster biologist, invited Al Jazeera to accompany them, Robin, and Robin’s son to check for recovering oyster populations.

The marsh area outside of Yscloskey, Louisiana was severely affected by massive fresh-water diversions from the Mississippi River. The choice to divert river water was made to flush the marsh in order to prevent oil from washing in, but the fresh water has killed all the oysters, and Cake believes dispersed oil came in anyway.

Further complicating things, Cake has pinpointed at least two invasive species that do not bode well for a recovery of Louisiana’s oysters.

“We are finding sponges growing on our oysters,” Cake told Al Jazeera. “They encrust the oyster shell and that prevents new spat [baby oysters] from attaching to grow new oysters. We don’t know why this is happening, but we think it came in response to the fresh water and oil. This is the first time we’ve seen it.”

The sponge is chalinula loosanoffi, and is native to Ireland, the Netherlands, and the upper East Coast of the US.

Cake has also found a worm, poydora aggregata, native to Maine, which attaches itself to oysters and fouls their shells.

“I’m worried these sponges and worms could wreak havoc on the industry,” Cake said.

Louisiana’s oyster harvest in 2010 was cut in half, to a 44-year low, due to BP’s oil disaster. Scott Gordon, Mississippi’s director of the Shellfish Bureau of the Office of Marine Fisheries, said in the summer of 2010, “I fully expect to have 100 per cent mortalities of the oysters in the western Mississippi Sound”.

His predictions have come true.

Professor Soniat explained that the oyster industry is afflicted with “multiple impacts”.

“First the oil spill took away their fishing season,” he said of the fishing ban put in place after the BP disaster. “Second, the fresh-water diversion took away the oysters; and third, the programme of having oystermen harvest shells from their leases to try to re-seed other areas killed the oyster reefs.”

Cake recently told Al Jazeera that many of the Gulf fisheries “have already collapsed” and the only question is “if or when they’ll come back”.

“If it takes too long for them to come back, the fishing industry won’t survive,” he added.

Given that after the Exxon Valdez oil disaster in Alaska in 1989, herring have still not come back enough to be a viable fishing resource, this does not bode well for the Gulf seafood industry, whose fisheries are – according to scientists like Cake and Soniat – still in the initial phase of collapse.

Follow Dahr Jamail on Twitter: @DahrJamail

Source: Al Jazeera