From the shores of Louisiana – Gulf Fisheries

In Baton Rouge last week I met for the first time a very vocal third-generation shrimper, George Barisich, who has been working the Gulf his entire life, initially for the fun of it – crabbing as a kid – and ever since as a fulltime commercial fisherman, since 1966.
He inherited his 50-foot shrimp, the “FJG,” which his father named after his three sons: Frances, Jefferson and George.
Today he’s president of the United Commercial Fishermen’s Association, which represents 139 shrimpers who are still all every disappointed by both the BP spill and its follow-up.
While the fisheries have largely been opened, and Barisich and his peers are out there every day catching shrimp, the market for them has mostly disappeared.
“There’s no one to buy the shrimp we’re bringing in, because they’re having a hard time selling it. The result is I’m getting 85 cents for a pound a shrimp, which used to bring me at least two dollars,” he says. “I’m not sure how long I can keep that kind of business going.”
The week before he’d had to drive his shrimp all the way into Mississippi before he could find a processor who would buy his shrimp, for $1.40.

“Back home my dealer don’t want it and his processors don’t want it. I’m going to have to go to make some money, but it’s going to be at depressed price, which means somebody’s going to have to give me free fuel or something. It’s complicated and not many fishermen understand what to do now.”

For the moment he vouches for the safety of the shrimp, despite some local scientist’s concerns that the allowable chemicals in the seafood have been altered by federal testers, making them seem safe when maybe they are not.

“We should be concerned about the reputation of Louisiana shrimp and seafood, so yes it needs to be tested. But for right now, I’m going to stay out there, fishing.”

“As for the oysters … I’m scared to death.” Due to all the freshwater from the Mississippi that was released into the mouth of the Gulf, most of the oyster beds are dead and may take three years or longer to revive.
A physically robust 54-year-old, George garnered good attention at the height of the spill, by appearing on Keith Olbermann’s “Countdown” show wearing one of his own designed t-shirts.

On the front it had a mock-BP logo and the words, “Bringing Oil to Your Shores in All New Ways.” (Watch video)

“We sold 893 of them the first day after the program,” he says, “which was the best money I made all summer.” The day after I met him last week he was headed to a Gulf Coast concert in Houston armed with t-shirts to sell.

(His knack for producing timely t-shirts had previously gotten him in hot water with Homeland Security, when he handed some out free near a FEMA office soon after Hurricane Katrina. Those read “Flooded by Katrina! Forgotten by FEMA! What’s Next, Mr. Bush?”)

Like many Gulf Coast fishermen, Barisich is wrestling with proposed buy-outs from BP.

“Helping with the clean-up was the first time I ever worked for someone else in my life, so I’m more than a little confused,” he admits.

Thousands of business owners, fishermen and others along the Gulf Coast are confronting a similar conundrum. Those who accept a one-time payoff check for their long-term losses from the victims’ compensation fund will have to give up their right to sue BP. So George could accept a piece of BP’s $20 billion claims fund – relatively fast, easy money – or sue the oil giant for a bigger payday, which could require waiting years and risking ending up with nothing.

“One lump settlement – should I take it if it’s decent? Should I wait it out? It’s on the back of everyone’s minds right now,” says George. “It’s another one of the unknowns that’s driving everyone sleepless right now.

“The only silver lining that is going to come out of this is that the government and the country are going to understand the importance of the Gulf.”

[Flickr image via leunix]

From the Shores of Louisiana – Is gulf seafood safe?

Baton Rouge, Louisiana: It’s rare for me to see 67-year-old Wilma Subra – chemist, MacArthur Grant ‘genius,’ grandmother of six – so worked up. But when I asked last week how things were going in the Gulf, where she’s been measuring levels of toxicity in air, water and fish long before the BP gusher began she was adamant that things are still bad out there.
“My biggest concern is that the message is ‘The oil is all gone.’ We are planning on being out in the field monitoring the wetlands, estuaries and beach areas for the impacts of the oil over the next several years,” she says, insisting that only then will we truly know about the impact on marine life, the environment and human health created by the BP mess.
But Subra’s biggest immediate concern is that the seafood coming from the Gulf may not be safe and that the federal agencies, specifically the FDA and NOAA, have cooked the books by adjusting the amount of some of the chemicals allowed in the fish they are testing… as a way to get fishermen back onto the Gulf and to restore confidence in the seafood market.
She forwarded me the criteria NOAA is using for testing, which makes it clear that its first test is smell and second for chemicals. Subra’s main concern is Polynuclear Aromatic Hydrocarbons, of which the BP crude had large percentages.
In June, says Subra, while the spill was still unfolding “the FDA, in association with NOAA, raised the acceptable levels of PAH, without providing a rationale for why.”

“Here’s part of its statement in the Protocol for Interpretation and Use of Sensory Testing and Analytical Chemistry Results for re-opening oil-impacted areas closed to seafood harvesting by the FDA, published June 18, 2010: ‘The new numbers were developed specifically for the unprecedented Deepwater Horizon Oil spill event and will not necessarily be applicable after all fisheries closed due to oil contamination are re-opened for safe harvest. Levels of concern and other factors for any subsequent oil spill event would be independently evaluated based on case-specific information.”

In other words, according to Subra and other scientists, the acceptable levels of PAH in the Gulf’s marine life were raised simply to address the impacts of the BP spill. It smacks less of concern for long-term human health, and more about getting the economy going again.

Subra’s complaints go bigger: “There is no testing for dispersants. In addition the calculations of the meal size used to calculate the consumption quantity is based on things like four shrimp per meal.” Who in Louisiana, or elsewhere, eats just four shrimp at a meal? Which begs another issue, which is that by allowing more chemicals to be in the seafood that is being taken from the Gulf it most-powerfully impacts those who eat it most often … which are the residents of the Gulf.

The bottom line, says Subra, is that “the concentrations of PAHs in seafood, based on the FDA acceptable levels, are inadequate to protect the health of seafood consumers.”

Dr. Jane Lubchenco, administrator of NOAA, has defended both her agency and the FDA’s approach and that they are doing “comprehensive testing,” which includes a two-part test: A team of sensory experts tastes and smells the seafood and if it” passes muster,” is sent to a lab and tested for 12 types of hazardous compounds. “

Subra is not alone in not buying the agency’s modus operandi.

Dr. William Sawyer, a Florida-based toxicologist hired by a New Orleans law firm to look at test results of water and seafood samples, said seafood safety could not be guaranteed using those tests. “Absolutely not, especially with respect to Louisiana shrimp.”Senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, Gina Solomon, concurs, and on September 21 urged federal officials to undertake “more rigorous” testing. She claims “NOAA only used data from 12 samples of shrimp, consisting of 73 individual shrimp for its evaluation. That’s just too small, she said, for an area the size of Connecticut.”Lubchenco, NOAA and the FDA continue to defend the testing and claim “the Gulf seafood taken from these waters is safe to eat” and the reopening of Gulf fishing waters “is another signal to tourists the northern Gulf is open for business.”

[flickr photo via Ms. Gail M Tang]

From the shores of Louisiana – SoLa premiere

Baton Rouge, Louisiana –
Last weekend I premiered my new documentary film about water and man in Louisiana – “SoLa, Louisiana Water Stories” – in the belly of the beast, in the heart of the state’s capitol.
The showing was at the beautiful Manship Theater and drew a crowd of Louisiana’s environmental cognoscenti, from activists to lawyers, politicians to fishermen. After the screening I was joined on stage by several of the characters interviewed in the film. I hadn’t been to Louisiana in a couple months – certainly not since the BP gusher had been finally capped – and was curious to gauge their take, emotional and statistical, on the status of the mess in the Gulf.
Former head of Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality, Paul Templet, admitted he hadn’t seen signs of change in the state level, or even yet at the federal agency level in regard to oversight of the offshore oil business. “My only sense of optimism,” he said, “lies with the courts. I think if BP is ultimately held to its promises it will be because of judges not politicians.”
There was worry among the crowd that BP may not live up to its promises of restitution – the $20 billion promised and currently being administered by Kenneth Feinberg, which many believe could grow to $100 billion, which could bankrupt the company.
Attorney Danny Becnel, Louisiana’s answer to F. Lee Bailey, from Reserve, Louisiana, filed the first suit in federal court against BP just 10 days after the spill, has since filed dozens more on behalf of fishermen, oil workers, restaurant and hotel owners and more. “The legal fights are going to go on as long as there is oil in the Gulf, which will be a long time,” he tells the crowd.

Dean Wilson, the Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, who watches over the environmental health of the most biodiverse swamp in the country, says while there is no oil in the basin …yet … his biggest concern post-spill is the continued lack of political will in the state. “We’ve been able to stop a lot of local environmental problems, like the cutting of the cypress swamps, but without the support of government and legislators. I think what we saw throughout the BP spill was the same thing … a lack of political will necessary to stop big pollution.”

“I don’t think (Governor Bobby) Jindal has ever even said the word ‘environment’ out loud,” quipped Templet. Prompting a shout-out from the audience, “But we know he can say ‘berm,’ ” reference to the governor’s fervent efforts during the spill to get a too-little-too-late $400 million berm built at the mouth of the Mississippi.

“Where has Mr. Jindal gone,” someone else asked from the audience. “He was all over the TV during the spill, calling for federal help. Now he’s nowhere to be seen.” Apparently his efforts these days are focused on getting the November 30 moratorium on new drilling lifted early.

Marylee Orr, the executive director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, reminded a crowd that is impacted by Louisiana’s disasters first hand, whether hurricanes, oil spills or Saint’s losses, reminded that local time is now told “pre-spill and post-spill.” She guesses she did more than 400 radio, television and print interviews at the height of the spill and worked 20-hour days for more than 3 months. Is she optimistic now that the well has been capped?

“Only time will tell if we can afford optimism. The notion that is now being spread around the world that the spill is over, that the problem is over, that everything’s back to normal … is not okay. Nothing is back to normal.”

Supporting her was chemist Wilma Subra, who has literally been on the ground since day one of the BP gusher, measuring toxins in the air, water and fish. She is not impressed by any of the numbers and is most angered by the “spin” being put on the issue of whether Gulf seafood is good to go … or not.

“The director of NOAA stood in front of a group of fishermen last week and said, repeatedly, ‘Seafood from the Gulf is not contaminated.’ Well, I don’t think we know that for sure yet.” Her biggest concern is that the government has changed the “allowable percentages” of certain chemicals found in fish, to ensure the fisheries reopen, choosing economic incentive over environmental cautions.

“It will still be many years before we know for sure how these coastal communities are going to fare,” said Subra. “Anything else you hear is a rush to judgment.”

From the Shores of Louisiana — Protesting to lift the drilling ban

Lafayette, Louisiana — Last month’s Rally for the Economy in Lafayette, Louisiana, went largely unnoticed outside the state, though 11,000 vociferous oil workers, their supporters and the elected political elite of the state showed up and shouted to the rooftop about their concerns over the continuing moratorium on deepwater oil drilling.

The Cajundome next to the campus of Louisiana University was packed with those who see the greatest crime created yet by the BP mess is the federal moratorium which its opponents say has already cost thousands of jobs and taken tens of millions of dollars out of the local economy.

The overarching sentiment at the event, sponsored by the state’s gas and oil lobbying group, was that, yes, the environmental mess may be bad … but the economic hit to the oil industry caused by the moratorium is far worse. The first 3,000 attendees got free t-shirts, others wore their own emblazoned with oil company logos or slogans like “Drill Baby Drill” and “No Moratorium.”

Twin themes emerged as more than a dozen politicians took to the stage. “You’re playing politics with our livelihood!” and “The moratorium is an attack on a way of life!” were the rallying cries, messages that were rowdily applauded here in the heart of Lafayette Parish, where 40 percent of all jobs are tied to oil and gas.

A majority in the crowd — many angry and frightened about the future, many of them unemployed — blame President Obama. Whenever the President’s name came up, it was followed by a chorus of boos (not too surprising in a state where John McCain captured 60 percent of the vote).

The folks at the Cajundome regard the BP accident as a fluke, a one-of-a-kind incident. Their most cited critique of the moratorium is that if an airplane falls out of the sky accidentally, the federal government doesn’t step in and shut down the entire airline industry.

One pastor was quoted saying simply: “The greatest risk to our economy is the moratorium. Our greatest obstacle to our recovery is man-made.”

It’s true that it’s not only the fishermen whose jobs are at great risk. With 33 deepwater rigs (and their $165 million in wages) frozen by the moratorium the concerns of the Cajundome crowd were legitimate. Many of those frozen rigs and jobs have already moved on to other sites in Brazil, Africa and Venezuela. In Louisiana, where one out of four jobs is tied to the oil industry – some 320,000 in all, creating a $70 billion a year business – BP has set up a $100 million fund for unemployed oil workers that may yet prove insufficient.

The three-hour rally was ready-made theater for local politicians, including Governor Bobby Jindal, who led cheers of “Lift the Ban, Lift the Ban, Lift the Ban” and joined in the Obama-bashing by suggesting, “Our people don’t want a BP check or an unemployment check. We want to go back to work.”

Outside the Cajundome protestors with signs supporting more careful drilling, concerns for the environment, the wildlife and the fisheries were kept to the fringes, behind police tape. This was a day for the oil industry workers to have their complaints heard.

From the Shores of Louisiana — Turtle rescue!

Along the beaches of the Florida panhandle and Alabama there is a massive rescue effort underway involving butter knives and forks, tricked-out Styrofoam coolers and specially-rigged FedEx trucks.

The job is to scoop 70,000 mostly loggerhead sea turtle eggs out of the sand (very carefully, using kitchen utensils among other tools) before the hatchlings can swim out into the Gulf where they will either suffocate or be poisoned when they start floating with the current and munching on oil-soaked seaweed.

It is an unusual example of across-the-board cooperation among the federal government (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) and local environmentalists, who are usually loudly against any such intervention. No matter the threat, relocating turtles nests is rarely done. Here it’s being regarded as essential.

Early this morning I talked with J. Nichols, a research associate with the California Academy of Sciences who was just leaving the dock in Grand Isle for a day observing the impact of the oil gusher on local wildlife. His Grupo Tortuga has for years been dedicated to restoring Pacific Ocean sea turtles. His response to the unorthodox rescue plan? “I wouldn’t want to put any turtle into that oil if there’s another option.”

The turtle rescue echoes a theme I heard in voiced across the Gulf as the gushing continued – 2.5 million gallons a day, or roughly 200 million gallons – like those defending the unorthodox building of berms and dikes to try and stem the oil tide, that doing something is better than doing nothing, even if the efforts may seem Quixotic.

%Gallery-98231%Carl Safina is the president of the Blue Ocean Institute. Among his many books on ocean wildlife he’s written “Voyage of the Turtle.” Regarding the nest relocating he says, “For the hatchlings it’s a tiny sliver of a gain. It helps draw attention and that’s good.” He adds that of course it is already too late for the juveniles and adults already aswim in the Gulf.

One reason sea turtles lay so many eggs – about 100 per nest – is because the chance of surviving is so low. The probability that a sea turtle hatchling will survive ranges from one in 1,000 to one in 10,000. Even in the best of times tracking them is tricky, including statistics like how many eggs are laid, how many turtles are successfully hatched and how many survive the first month.

The process of trying to save the 700 nests is painstaking: 1,500 Styrofoam coolers have been turned into surrogate nests, each holding just half a nest. Once the coolers are filled with sand and the eggs carefully laid inside they are loaded into specially padded FedEx 18-wheelers and driven to the NASA-controlled Kennedy Space Center where an air-conditioned warehouse has been readied. Within seven to eight weeks the eggs should hatch and the tiny turtles will be carted to the eastern side of Florida to be released into the Atlantic.

Everyone involved has fingers, toes, etc., firmly crossed.

Like most wildlife in the Gulf, sea turtles have not fared very well. To-date a little more than 600 have been found washed ashore or floating injured near the site of the gushing oil well, 447 dead and 116 with visible oil on them. Others have been accidentally burned to death in some of the “controlled” fires aimed at reducing oil gathered on the sea’s surface.

BP is concerned about those numbers because ultimately it will have to pay damages for every dead creature counted, just as it will have to pay a penalty for each gallon spilled.