VENICE, La. (CN) – Nicknamed “the end of the world,” Venice sort of feels that way. Seventy-five miles from New Orleans, the Venice marina sits on the last stretch of land before the Mississippi River enters the Gulf of Mexico. When the tide is high, water rushes over the last bend of the marina-bound road, plunging it into bayou. Herons stand knee-deep in reeds and hunt for fish. An occasional car or house, as if in mirage, stands partially submerged on the watery horizon. Fishermen here say they are not only waiting for the oil to come, they are also waiting for their paychecks from BP.
Local fishermen, hired by BP to battle oil, sail out from the Venice marina at 6:30 a.m. and trickle back to the marina in the last, fading hours of daylight.
With the light of the evening sky broken into golden streams, a pair of little boys sat on the marina dock. One dangled a fishing line in the water.
Farther down the dock two fishermen packed up a shrimp boat for the evening.
“This is my first oil industry job,” one said.
He said he was working for BP and the oil company doesn’t like him to talk. He said he’s received one paycheck from BP, at the beginning of May.
“But nothing since then,” he said. “Nothing now for 35 days. That’s slow. But I mean, I never worked in an oilfield before -I don’t know how the oilfield works. It’s not going to be like shrimping.
“With shrimp, you go out for the day and when you’re coming in, you pull right up to a shrimp dock, and they pay you then and there.”
His work partner was less concerned about what BP didn’t want him to say.
“I’d like to know where my money is,” the other man said.
“I’ve been a fisherman all my life. My mom used to paddle to school in a pirogue -all my life. My daddy hunted alligators. My cousin trolled and never had a land job his whole life. I was born and raised in camps – shrimp, alligator, redfish, trout – you go from fishing one animal to the other, because each one has its own season. You got to do all kinds of different things.”
The first fisherman shook his head as the other one estimated how long oil in the marshes will be a problem.
“I think my estimate, from three to five years for fishing to come back. That’s if we can stop the oil. If we can’t, it may never come back.”
“There’s no timetable for it,” the first fisherman said. “It’s still too early. And we’ve been here all our life. This is what I do. This is my lifetime.”
Across the way, a silver CNN bus was parked off the side of the road. John King interviewed Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser on the riverbank.
“That’s Billy Nungesser over there,” one of the fishermen said.
“Were you stalking Billy or did you just get lucky running into him?” asked Benny Puckett, a parish employee who works for Nungesser.
The seafood restaurant and bar on stilts and a deck overlooking the water was packed with locals eating dinner. Nungesser found his way through a maze of handshakes and arm pats to a table on the far wall.
“Oil spill workers,” one of Nungesser’s men said. “Used to be they would be fishers.”
At Nungesser’s request, Puckett dialed and asked to speak with the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Before taking the phone, Nungesser explained his earthmoving energy ever since the oil spill.
“I only know one way – to do something 100 percent,” he said. “Until the Coast Guard and BP steps up and does everything physically possible to stop the oil, if not, if I’m not doing everything humanly possible, I can’t look folks in Plaquemines Parish in the eyes.”
Puckett passed the phone to Nungesser.
It was just as interviews with Nungesser have been reported: he oscillated from talking on the phone to explaining his plan for the marshes to checking his voicemail, then back to the conversation, always picking up where he’d stopped midflight.
When he was off the phone with Jackson, he went back to talking marsh: “You need to boom the marsh. Then you get shallow water skimmers, then you suction out the marsh. You do it on the islands too, but for the marsh you need different equipment. You have to suck the ponds out because they get full of oil.”
He sipped a Diet Coke and dialed his voicemail, pen and paper poised for note-taking.
Puckett, across the table, leaned in: “He understands the marsh. He understands the water. He understands the oil.”
Nungesser was jotting notes from his voicemail. He has bright eyes.
“I’m 51,” he said. “This is oil spill grey in my hair, these streaks.”
Nungesser’s dad, Billy Nungesser Sr., a famously shrewd politician, was head of the Louisiana Republican Party for 25 years.
What about the talk of impending bankruptcy for BP?
“Bankruptcy always has to be a concern,” Nungesser said. “But we can’t focus on that and not ask them to do the right thing.”
One voicemail called his attention back.
Puckett leaned across the table again.
“This, the oil spill, is not a Stafford Act disaster,” he said. “The Stafford Act sets the parameters of a natural disaster in order for unemployment benefits, food stamps, etc. Right now there is a movement to try to make this qualify under the Stafford Act. Because without emergency unemployment compensation, food stamps and other emergency safety nets, the fishermen are just out of luck. That’s the perspective.
“If you think about it, during shrimping season, which would be now, a fisherman might make $40,000 or $50,000 in just a couple months. But that money goes for the whole year – to pay their mortgage, their boat, the gas the boat uses.
“It’s a Catch-22,” he said. “If you can’t fish and then you take a $5,000 monthly payment from BP, you cannot get food stamps because your income is too much, but then the $5,000 is really only half what you need.”
Nungesser looked up from his note-taking. “You know you’re on to something when you have three messages from Kevin Costner saying to call him back.”