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Thursday, May 23, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Gulf Fishermen, Staggered but|Surviving, Head Back to Sea

VENICE, La. (CN) - Carved wooden signs at the Venice Marina at the southern tip of Plaquemines Parish state: "Venice Marina - Fishing Capital of the World." Fishermen and charter boat captains secured their ships as dusk fell. With gale-force wind and rain predicted, fishermen and shrimpers, some of whom have just been able to return to work, were putting in as much work as they could before the storm.

Captain Joe Norman and his crew had just arrived after a 12-hour sail from the Lake Borgne area on the North Shore. His shrimp boat, the Carla Ann, is new this season. Other shrimpers have said that since returning to work after the disastrous oil spill, the catch has been good.

Norman said he spent the summer crabbing in lakes Borgne and Pontchartrain. But because initially only a small area of waters was open to crabbing, prices were driven sky high; then when more areas opened, crab prices fell drastically.

"No one wanted the crabs," Norman said.

In the end, he said he was stuck with dozens of unsold crab traps, and wound up paying his deckhand even while he didn't make any money himself for the season.

Norman said he doesn't worry that the oil still in the Gulf will affect the seafood caught this season.

"If that stuff really did sink down like they say, and it probably did, it's not going to have any impact on anything we catch now," he said. He added that he would eat anything he could get his hands on that comes from the Gulf, and his family would too.

But Norman does worry about the effect the oil spill will have on marine life in coming years.

"But after the next two to three years it will be a lot better," Norman said. "After that time, you won't have a problem at all."

Two weeks ago, aerial photographs showed massive orange-brown stripes muddying a wide surface of the Gulf of Mexico between South Pass and Venice. It appeared to be heading toward fragile marshes around the mouth of the Mississippi River.

Boats that pass through the stained water reported the dark thick substance looked and smelled like the orange-brown oil that spilled all summer from BP's broken Macondo well. The substance left an oily residue on hulls that took hours to wash off.

The Times-Picayune reported the massive orange fingers looked "like weathered oil," and reported that numerous reported sightings of the patch, which came as millions of birds began their fall migration into the Gulf region, "gave ammunition to groups that have insisted the government has overstated clean-up progress, and could force reclosure of key fishing areas only recently opened."

In the days after that report, scientists at Louisiana State University said samples of the dark orange strings were not the result of oil, but of a massive algae bloom that contained only trace amounts of hydrocarbons, according to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

The state agency said that Ed Overton, professor emeritus for the Department of Environmental Sciences, whose lab specializes in petroleum analysis, concluded that the low levels of hydrocarbons in the samples were consistent with normal surface water in the Gulf from natural oil seeps on the Gulf floor, waterway discharges, boat byproducts and industrial runoff.

Speaking last week during a Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Natural Resource Damage Assessment meeting in St. Bernard Parish, Karolien Debusschere, deputy coordinator for the Louisiana Oil Spill Coordinator's Office, said restoration assessment and implementation in the Gulf of Mexico will take several years. She cited the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill to show that long-term effects of the spill are not yet known and may not be known for many years to come.

Among the unknown factors is what long-term impact the widespread use of dispersants will have.

"What's the long-term effect of dispersants? We don't know, and we won't know for quite some time," Debusschere said.

Almost 42 million gallons of dispersants were dropped on the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20.

That's more dispersant than the amount of oil spilled in any single U.S. accident before the BP disaster.

Capt. Norman said he doesn't worry what the long-term effect of the dispersants will be. He said the Gulf is huge and its waters will take care of themselves.

Also at the Venice Marina on Wednesday, Capt. David Iverson, a Louisiana Charter Boat Association captain and former longtime employee of Exxon, said redfish are plentiful in the Gulf and that he isn't worried about the long-term effect of dispersants.

Iverson said the Coast Guard is knowledgeable about the effects of dispersants, and if the dispersants used to combat the 4.9 million barrels of oil that spewed into the Gulf weren't necessary, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen would have forced BP to stop using it, after the EPA's demand the BP stop using it was ignored in May.

"Allen knew exactly what was needed. The dispersants were necessary to break up the pancake of oil from sitting on the surface of the Gulf," Iverson said. He added that part of the trouble with the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill was that Exxon was not initially allowed to spray dispersants to break up the surface oil.

On the other side of the Venice Marina, Bobby Milano, an engineer working aboard a shrimp boat, said he worked in oil cleanup in Alaska after the Exxon Valdez spill. Milano said he is extremely concerned about the long-term effect of dispersants in the Gulf.

"I'm concerned about dispersants, period," Milano said.

Milano said he isn't worried about the chemicals showing up in seafood he eats so much as what the chemical's toll on the Gulf ecosystem will be.

As the last light died, Rickie Boyd helped his sons secure their shrimp boat. Once a commercial fisherman, Boyd now owns an environmental services company. He still likes to fish recreationally every chance he gets.

Boyd said he's thrilled to be able to fish again after the long closures, and worries only if something causes the water to close again.

"I love the fish. I love the water. I love the seafood," Boyd said. "There's no place I'd rather be."

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