Posted on 30 Apr 2010
Boat captains here boast that Venice, a remote outpost at the tip of the Mississippi Delta, is the fishing capital of the world. But a rapidly expanding oil slick from a leaking deepwater well could leave a permanent mark here.
Hundreds of shrimping boats sail from here, dragging their nets around the inland estuaries and the rich seabed of the Gulf, which teems with white, pink and brown shrimp. Fishermen, commercial and recreational, scour the area for kingfish, red snapper and marlin. The Gulf region accounts for about a fifth of total U.S. commercial seafood production and nearly three-quarters of the nation's shrimp output, while nearly a third of all marine recreational fishing trips take place on Gulf waters, according to the Fisheries Service of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.
"This is the Delta," said Robert Cossé, the marine division commander of Plaquemines Parish Sheriff's Office, while piloting a boat across the Pass-a-Loutre Wildlife Management Reserve. "Lots of life."
The threat follows the explosion of a deepwater oil rig last week. Spill responders, who have so far failed to cap the flow of oil from the well, say the slick could hit shore before the weekend, prompting them to try to burn off the crude a few miles from shore.
Shrimpers take the threat from the oil slick so seriously that a group of them already has filed a lawsuit seeking class action status accusing the oil field's owner, BP PLC, and the operator of the sunken rig, Transocean Ltd., of negligence.
"The fast-moving oil slick ... has already caused detrimental effects upon the Gulf of Mexico's and Louisiana's marine environments, coastal environments and estuarine areas," the suit, filed Thursday with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, alleges.
It was Alaskan fishermen who initiated a lawsuit that led Exxon Mobil Corp. to pay about $1 billion in damages and interest related to the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Nutrients deposited here by North America's mightiest river are at the origin of this marine bounty, which allowed the community to rebound quickly after Hurricane Katrina wrecked it in 2005. Still, some scars from the storm remain—dead willow and cypress trees line the canals, and derelict boats and trailers litter the landscape. In addition, hurricanes have destroyed marshes, further eroding a thin strip of land that's slowly vanishing into the Gulf. Now, the oil slick threatens efforts to restore this delicate shoreline.
Venice, the closest town to the drama, has become a staging center for response efforts. Beneath the nearly constant hum of helicopters going back and forth between the spill and the city, the fishermen grew anxious as it remained unclear whether the burning efforts would be successful. Moreover, late Wednesday the Coast Guard raised its estimate of the rate at which the deepwater well was leaking to 5,000 barrels of oil a day, five times as fast as previously thought.
"It could wipe us out," said fisherman Jerry Walker, 63 years old, who takes his boat all over the Gulf looking for kingfish and red snapper. Mr. Walker fears the spill could not only affect southern Louisiana, but also sully the waters all over the Gulf. The slick was recently about 15 miles from the Louisiana shore, and spread over an area larger than Jamaica.
Louisiana and federal authorities are deploying thousands of feet of inflatable tubing called boom line along the waterways to keep the incoming slick at bay. On Thursday, concerns emerged that rough weather might hamper further deployment of boom line.
"If [the oil] comes in, there's going to be hundreds of guys without jobs," said Billy Wallbaum, a charter boat captain. "I'm concerned; this is what I do."
The stakes are high here, not only for Venice fishermen. Louisiana has a $3 billion fishing industry—the source of a third of the seafood consumed in the U.S., according to the Louisiana Seafood Marketing and Promotion Board, a state-run agency. Seafood caught here also helps underpin the economy of nearby states that process it, such as Alabama and Mississippi. The impact could be long-lasting and could be made worse by the fact that it's spawning season for some fish and migration time for the young of some species of shrimp.
"We don't know what the impact will be," said Monica Allen, spokeswoman for the NOAA's Fisheries Service. "The spill could have impacts on shrimp catches this year and also next year."
Shrimpers may be hit particularly hard. Many have been waiting for shrimping season to start in May, and now foresee a longtime closure. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries said in a release on its Web site Thursday that it had opened a special shrimp season in portions of the Gulf threatened by the approach of the oil slick. The timing of the spill is also especially detrimental to recreational fishing, which picks up in May and June.
"You wait for this time of the year so you start generating some money in the household," said shrimper Robert Denet, 54, who scours the waters in a shrimping boat called Honey and Gold.
As the oil nears shore, Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser said the fishermen have the chance to fight back. He offered the U.S. Coast Guard and BP some local help, in the form of a daring sortie.
"We could take the shrimp boats and oyster boasts and load them up with boom," Mr. Nungesser said.