Drilled By BP

Plaquemines Parish is home to Boothville, Empire and Venice. This tiny parish with a population of 21,000 contributes to the vibrant Louisianan ocean- and estuarine-based economy. The small townships of Boothville and Empire have just rebounded from the devastation of Katrina and are now looking down the barrel of an endless gun, which leaves them with no clear end in sight.
Down and dirty with a disaster. The national media claims the BP oil spill is not a visual story. However, this oil slick was spotted in the mouth of Terrebone Bay on May 10, 2010. We found a number of hermit and blue shelled crabs dead along the Gulf-facing side of a small barrier island. Most appeared to have died while crawling through the the myriad of tar-balls that littered the beach.
Vessels of Opportunity. The BP oil spill is a travesty that we will not know the long-term affects for possible generations. The spill has left most fishermen in Louisiana waters dry-docked for an undetermined time. The shrimpers and fishermen of the Louisiana coast, though, proved their mettle days after the reports of 1000s of barrels of gas began spewing into the Gulf. Fishermen volunteered to protect their coastlines. BP is quick to get these docked boats back on the water and is paying fishermen to clean BP's mess. Volunteers are paid 5,000 dollars up front to make up for the losses they incur while not on the water.
The untold stories of the people affected by the BP oil spill are the most compelling part of this tale as it slowly unfolds. Capturing their lives and sharing them in an empathetic way is a challenge. In the case of Robert Buras, a third generation shrimper, how does one write his story? As we spoke with him about the spill, I asked, "Robert if you have a long time closure, how will this affect your livelihood?" He looked me in the eye without blinking and without shame said, "I can't read; I can't write. The only thing I know is shrimping."
When Captain Damon McKnight of Super Strike Charters of Venice, Louisiana joined the NMFS Gulf Council to get answers to the shortened red snapper season in the Gulf, he had no idea that after his first year on the council he'd step right into more questions and uncertainty than has ever affected the Gulf. Captain McKnight says, "This oil spill will be a learning process for the council. The conversation has changed, and we don't know where it might lead."
Captain McKnight has to scrub the orangish-red sludge off the sides of his twin-vee catamaran. Venice Marina is a long way from the Gulf-facing coasts which will bare the greatest brunt of the BP oil spill. Unfortunately without boat scrub down stations entering back into the backwater ports, they may be inadvertently spreading the deleterious effects of the spill.
Visions of a flexing, rolling mass of black oil reminiscent of the Blob just don't exist in this story. The national media has stepped away from on-the-ground reporting because it is not a visually compelling, imagery based news bit. The dispersant Corexit, which is banned in the UK because of proven toxicity to human and marine life, is dispersing the oil. However, one must be aware the dispersant is only thinning the oil, not eradicating it. The use of chemical dispersants may be worse than actually letting the oil wash ashore.
State Representative Cedric Richmond (D) is a lifelong Louisianan and an avid fisherman. He is currently in a congressional race for the Louisiana 2nd District Seat against incumbent Representative Ahn Cao (R). Representative Richmond is angry, "BP is responsible for this tragedy, and it's BP who will pay to make sure our fishermen are not left bearing the worst of this disaster."
George Barisich is the president of the United Commercial Fisherman's Association. Barisich was the lead plaintiff named in the suit to get BP to remove waiver language from their contracts with volunteer fishermen and shrimpers. The original language paid volunteers a one-time $5000 dollar settlement for loses and business disruption, but the original contract language stated individuals who took the settlement and volunteered would release BP from any further claims on injury, loss of property, or business.
James Garner is part of the Gulf Oil Disaster Recovery Group, a consortium of Gulf coast attorneys protecting the rights of those affected by the BP oil spill. Garner represents George Barisich and the United Commercial Fisherman's Association. Garner's greatest concern amidst the impending landing of oil on the Gulf Coast is the long-term health risks related to carcinogenic toxins in the atmosphere and what affects this may have on the residents of the Gulf coast.
Environmental NGOs are working to motivate their grassroots advocates at a feverish pace. New Orleans has hosted a number of rallies by such groups as the Sierra Club, the Gulf Restoration Network, and the Go For Green Group. The Sierra Club had members sign a banner petition last weekend and held it in front of the White House urging President Obama to take action against BP and the oil industry.
Save NOLA cuts to the quick of the direst consequences of the BP oil disaster. It is estimated the Louisiana delta loses a football field of wetlands every forty-five minutes to encroaching saltwater intrusion. If the spill contributes to an increased loss of wetland, the 80-mile stretch between the Gulf and NOLA will no longer be there to protect the Crescent City from storms like Katrina.
Up close and dirty with the enemy. The beaches 100-miles west of Venice in the Cocodrie, Timbalier Bay, and Terrebone Bay areas were covered with tar balls like these as far as the eye could see. The oil washing up west of the Venice area had a much different texture and look than the oil on the east side of the Mississippi river. The oil on the west side is untreated by dispersants and does not have the neon-orange glare like that of the east side.
Captain Lance Nacio is a seafood distributor and shrimper. Annamarie Seafood sells shrimp to a number of up-scale New Orleans restaurants. "I'm not worried about my business," he says. "I can survive. I have business interruption insurance, and I've been hired by BP as one of the Vessels of Opportunity. The ones I feel sorry for are the small mom and pops that have done this for generations. They may not survive."
With 40% of the nation's shrimp production in the Louisiana delta, asking for Louisiana shrimp may be something we put off for a while to see where the most dire ecological impacts may occur. For most Louisiana shrimp, their life spans and populations are predicated on a one-year life cycle. If that delicate breeding source is disrupted, it may be years before the populations rebound to current levels.
The requirements for the Vessels of Opportunity program are stringent and require almost an entire re-rigging of boats built for dragging for shrimp rather than oil. Captain Nacio's crew removes the refrigeration unit topside that stores his catch for the market. The fantail of his immaculate boat, the AnnaMarie, will soon be covered with bright orange booms used to protect the coastline from encroaching oil.
BP and the EPA have announced that luckily wildlife has felt very little impact from the BP oil spill. However with dolphins and pogies washing ashore in record numbers in Alabama and Mississippi, one has to question the level of impact our marine life has already sustained. The tar ball here and the surrounding sheen were found on a rookery west of Venice. Once the sand crab is eaten by larger terrestrial predators such as birds and crabs, how long before it gets into the upper levels of the food chain?
Captain Corey Pitre has been a Cocodrie guide for thirty-five years. His father was the first guide in the Cocodrie, Houma area. "Guiding has been my life," he says. "I sold my boat a few years ago to captain an owners boat. The fishery has gotten so hard and competitive it just made more sense. I hope this doesn't take me off the water for long."
The deckhand of Captain Tommy Pellegrine's Reel Life out of Cocodrie's Sportsman Paradise lifted the anchor line and had a surprise in store. With the EPA and eNGOs espousing the level of toxicity of the spill and dispersants, this highlights the precautions anglers must take in the northern Gulf to protect themselves from inadvertent harm and health issues.
Although BP and wildlife departments have downplayed the effects of the spill on wildlife, hermit and blue crabs are already washing ashore in the thousands. When this photo was taken, we were on a rookery where we found hundreds of birds feeding on the carcasses of the dead crabs.

SPECIAL REPORT: Captain Brandon Shuler's Gulf oil spill update.