x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Oil spill threatens Mexico Gulf fishermen with ruin

Those that make a living from the sea south of New Orleans, still recovering from the wake of Hurricane Katrina, are reeling from a new threat.

GRAND BAYOU, Louisiana // An advancing oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico had yet to hit land in the Mississippi Delta, but Curt Pannagl, an oyster broker, was already facing ruin because he could not harvest his oysters, worth several hundred thousand dollars.

"The health department has stopped us prematurely. I don't have a problem if there was any oil, but there isn't any yet and they won't let me harvest my oysters because they think it isn't safe," he said. "I've been waiting and growing these oysters for the last couple of years. I'm going to be out of business in the long term. This is worse than Hurricane Katrina because at least then the government stepped up to help."

Many people who make their living from the abundant fish and seafood that grow in the marshlands and sea some 110km south of New Orleans are still recovering from the devastation left in the wake of Katrina five years ago. They now face what the US president Barack Obama called on a visit to Louisiana on Sunday an "unprecedented environmental disaster" from the oil spill that could "seriously damage the economy and the environment of our Gulf states and it could extend for a long time".

Four US states - Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida - were on alert and fearing landfall of an oil slick estimated to be about 209km by 113km. It was caused by an explosion of a BP-contracted oil rig on April 20. While BP was trying to stop the gush of 5,000 barrels of oil a day, the 25,000 residents of Plaquemines parish in the Mississippi Delta, the southernmost point of Louisiana, were left wondering how they would deal with the looming disaster while reconstruction after Katrina had yet to be completed.

The hulks of rotten houses and sheds still dot the landscape, already marred by the industrial cranes and docks along Louisiana's coastal waterways through which vast oil tankers ply their way to service the region's biggest money-spinner - oil. Residents, who can be roughly divided between those who work in the oil industry and those who make their living from fishing the abundant shrimp, oysters and other wildlife, now face the flip side of the oil boom in the form of the long-term effects of the oil spill.

"My father, my brother, my uncles all make their living from fishing," said Julia Sylve, 22, who lives and grew up in Grand Bayou, a "floating village" where houses on tall stilts are only accessibly by boat. She first learned to navigate a small boat by herself when she was six and travelled in a "school boat" to attend lessons at a nearby private Christian school. She said only about 25 people remained in Grand Bayou, where houses destroyed by Katrina still rise from the water and await reconstruction by owners who fled to safer ground. She had found work in a nearby hotel.

Ms Sylve, who is part Native American and part Cajun, who are descendants of French colonists exiled from Canada in the 18th century, said she hated growing up in Grand Bayou but had since learned to love what she called a unique and precious waterscape. The oil spill has thrown the focus back on the delta wetlands, where between 65 sq km and 90 sq km of land - roughly the size of Manhattan - are lost each year.

Extensive dredging and canal construction for the oil industry as well as the building of levees, aimed at protecting communities further inland, such as New Orleans, from flooding have impeded the Mississippi river's annual deposit of sediment. The incremental loss of the delta's land leaves everyone more vulnerable to hurricane damage and flooding. Grand Bayou remains a tight-knit community that had grown closer in the wake of Katrina. Fishermen there were sceptical about BP's offer to pay them to help lay lines of boom to protect the coast. They had signed up and were waiting to be called but said the work would put their boats at risk for relatively little pay.

"I could lose my boat and then where would I be?" said one Grand Bayou fisherman, who planned to disregard, at least for a couple of days, a recently-imposed ban on fishing as the oil slick approached the coast. "I've never been in jail and if that's where they put me, so be it," he said. "I have to feed my family and I have no other work." Few people in the delta want or expect any serious curbs on the oil industry because it provides an important source of revenue in what would be an otherwise even poorer region.

But residents such as Ms Sylve hope that at least greater regard would be paid to protecting her hometown in the wake of the oil spill. "This is such a beautiful and unique region and it's in everyone's interests that we don't lose it," she said.
sdevi@thenational.ae