From the Shores of Louisiana: A letter from a Louisiana fisherman

Among the many I’ve met and worked with in southern Louisiana (SoLa) these past two years, making a film about the relationship between man and the sea, no couple has impressed me more than Tracy Kuhns and Michael Roberts. Committed to family, community, and the environmental concerns of them all, they share many hats: Both work as the Louisiana Bayoukeepers. Mike is a fulltime fisherman and when he’s not fishing, a builder. Tracy runs the local Fisherman’s Association They have kids and grandkids and neighbors along the watery canals where they all keep their fishing boats tied. I shared their story with you a couple Dispatches back, from Barataria

Tracy is usually the front person; she was the one who got the Mayor of Lafitte on the phone the other day when I was visiting, haranguing him to decide if the fishery was open or not. Mike often stands in the background, especially when it comes to journalists. But he was the one who compared BP execs to terrorists, for the damage the local economy and fishing grounds that now appears will last for many, many years. Last Sunday, Mike and Tracy went out from their home on the waters leading to Barataria Bay and the Gulf to see just how bad it is. Below is an email Mike sent me after we’d visited:

The boat ride, out from Lafitte, Louisiana on Sunday to our fishing grounds was like any other I have taken in my life as a commercial fisherman from this area. I have made this same trip thousands of times in my 35 plus years of shrimping and crabbing.

A warm breeze in my face, it is a typical Louisiana summer day. Three people were with me — my wife Tracy, Ian Wren, and our grandson, Scottie. I was soon to find out just how untypical this day would become for me, not unlike a death in the family. This was going to be a very bad day for me.

As we neared Barataria Bay, the smell of crude oil in the air got thicker and thicker. The approach of the fishing grounds, an event that has always brought joy to me all of my life, was slowly turning into a nightmare. As we entered Grand Lake, the name we fishermen call Barataria Bay, I started to see a weird, glassy look to the water and soon it became evident there was oil sheen as far as I could see. Soon, we were running past patches of red oil floating on top of the water. As we headed farther south we saw at least a dozen boats, which from a distance appeared to be shrimping. But we soon realized that shrimping was not what they were doing at all; instead they were towing oil booms in a desperate attempt to corral oil that was pouring into our fishing grounds. We stopped to talk to one of the fishermen towing a boom, a young fisherman from Lafitte. What he told me floored me. “What we are seeing in the lake, the oil, was but a drop in the bucket of what was to come,” he said. He had just come out of the Gulf of Mexico and said, “It was unbelievable, and the oil runs for miles and miles and was headed for shore and into our fishing grounds. I thought what I had already seen in the lake was bad enough for a lifetime. We talked a little while longer, gave the fisherman some protective respirators, and were soon on our way. As we left the small fleet of boats working feverishly, trying to corral the oil, I became overwhelmed with what I had seen.

I am not real emotional and consider myself a pretty tough guy. You have to be to survive as a fisherman. But as I left that scene, tears flowed down my face and I cried. Something I have not done in a long time, but would do several more times this day. I tried not to let my grandson, Scottie, see me crying. I didn’t think he would understand, that I was crying for his stolen future. None of this will be the same, for decades to come. The damage is going to be immense and I do not think our lives here in South Louisiana will ever be the same. He is too young to understand. He has an intense love for our way of life here. He wants to be a fisherman and a fishing guide when he gets older. That’s all he’s ever wanted. It is what he is, it is in his soul, and it is his culture. How can I tell him that this may never come to pass now, now that everything he loves in the outdoors may soon be destroyed by this massive oil spill? How do we tell this to a generation of young people in south Louisiana who live and breathe this bayou life that they love so much, could soon be gone? How do we tell them? All this raced through my mind and I wept.

We continued farther south towards Grand Terre Island. We approached Bird Island. Its real name is Queen Bess Island, but we call it Bird Island, because it is always full of birds. It is a rookery, a nesting island for thousands of birds, pelicans, terns, gulls and more. As we got closer we saw that protective booms had been placed around about two thirds of the island. But it was obvious to me that oil had gone under the boom and was fouling the shore and had undoubtedly oiled some birds. My God. We would see this scene again at Cat Island and other unnamed islands. We continued on to the east past Coup Abel Pass and saw more shrimp boats trying to contain some of the oil on the surface. We arrived at 4 Bayou Pass to see more boats working on the same thing. We beached the boat and decided to look at the beach between the passes.

The scene was one of horror to me. There was thick red oil on the entire stretch of beach, with oil continuing to wash ashore. The water looked to be infused with red oil, with billions of what appeared to be red pebbles of oil washing up on the beach with every wave. The red oil pebbles, at the high tide mark on the beach, were melting into pools of red goo under the hot Louisiana sun. The damage was overwhelming. There was nobody there to clean it up. It would take an army to do it. Like so much of coastal Louisiana, it was accessible only by boat. Will it ever be cleaned up? I don’t know. Tears again. We soon left that beach and started to head home.

We took a little different route home, staying a little farther to the east side of Barataria Bay. As we approached the northern end of the bay, we ran into another raft of oil that appeared to be covering many square miles. It was only a mile from the interior bayous on the north side of Barataria Bay. My God. No boats were towing boom in this area. I do not think anyone even knew it was there. A little bit farther north we saw some shrimp boats with boom, on anchor, waiting to try and protect Bayou St. Dennis from the oil. I alerted them that oil was on its way. I hope they were able to control it before it reached the bayou. We left them and started towards home.

My heart never felt so heavy as on that ride in. I thought to myself, This is the most I’ve cried since I was a baby. In fact I am sure it was. This will be a summer of tears for a lot of us in south Louisiana.

JB: I spoke with Tracy after their exploration. She was no less moved:

“We are heartbroken. The oil has moved into Barataria Bay and is heading north. The southern half of our fishing grounds is closed. Seeing grown, tough men cry and knowing our grandchildren, like Scottie, who’s life and career dreams are related to bayou life, is something to hard to watch or think about. The government, whose sole purpose is to protect the health and safety of its citizens has and is continuing to fail the people. They are allowing BP to kill the Gulf of Mexico and its coastal communities. Shame on them, how can they sleep at night?”