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 — 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.

From the Shores of Louisiana: Dredging

Chandeleur Islands, Louisiana — The French-born helicopter pilot zooming low over the Gulf is focused on two things: Whether he can find more fuel in Venice and whether or not the brown streaking we’re seeing north of the Chandeleur Islands is oil or just the transition of muddy Mississippi River water mixing with salt water.

It’s his first day flying out of Plaquemines Parish and, with maps piled on his lap, he admits to being a bit confused by both the landscape zipping past below at 100 mph – over solitary oil rigs, marsh and sand islands and a half-dozen shrimp boats trailing skimmers — and just how deeply the oil has penetrated up the mouth of the Mississippi.

From five hundred feet above sea level, with a mid-afternoon sun streaking in the window, it is admittedly hard to distinguish oil from muddy water. But when veteran Gulf photographer Gerald Herbert, riding shotgun, points worriedly below, it’s clear we are seeing a new stain heading inland, which we estimate to be about 12 miles long.

Everywhere you look in this area where Gulf waters meet fresh water, looking west towards the town of Grand Isle and the entry to Barataria Bay, you see oil.

My goal though is the Chandeleur Islands, about 50 miles off the coast. I want to parallel the length of the small island chain to see just how much oil has surrounded its 50-mile length. The Chandeleurs are the only bits of land standing between the still-gushing oil and landfall and for the past decade, thanks to storms and erosion, have been disappearing at a rate of about 300 feet a year. Now, thanks to the BP spill, the long-ignored islands have become a kind of secondary ground zero in the fight between locals and the federal government over how best to slow the spread of oil.

%Gallery-98231%It’s not a great leap to think that if energy had been put into building the islands up over the years to act as better barriers against big storms they’d also be better prepared to act as blockades to all this oil.

Governor Bobby Jindal, Plaquemines Parish president Billy Nunsegger and several other top Louisiana politicos have sent cranes to the islands – which are federally protected wildlife habitats – and not the kind that swoop and soar but the kind that trench and roar.

The federal government has already stopped the plan a couple times, concerned that any hasty digging, sucking and relocating of sand has the potential to do far more harm than good; the locals, led by an increasingly vociferous governor, argue that doing something – anything!! — Is better than doing nothing.

The local’s plan, to be paid for initially with state funds since neither the fed nor BP is backing it, is to suck sand off the bottom of the Gulf and pile it at the ends of the islands, extending their blocking ability. But the Interior Department, as well as several Louisiana environmentalists, contends the work is being done at overly sensitive sections of the island and that building up one end of the island will only weaken the spot where the sand is being taken.

My instinct as we fly over the islands at 2,000 feet – we’ve had to climb since this is federally protected air space – is that with evidence of oil having arrived yesterday on Lake Ponchatrain in New Orleans (80 miles up the Mississippi River) it seems that the oil has already evaded the barrier islands. Louisiana government statistics suggest that 337 miles of its coastline are now oil-inflicted. Maybe the hundreds of millions Louisiana is attempting to spend to try and block the oil could be better spent on coordinating its clean up.

But Bobby Jindal and team seem to be in a building frenzy; the fed has yesterday stymied another effort to build rock jetties or dikes in the shallow ocean in front of Grand Isle; 75 barges piled high with boulders sit parked on the Mississippi River, waiting the outcome of another squabble. The concern regarding the dike building is what will happen to them once the spill dissipates. If it ever does.