trepidation in sportsman’s paradise
Gulf of Mexico oil spill brings wave of terror to southeast Louisiana outdoorsmen
By Bob Marshall, The Times-Picayune
May 02, 2010, 6:02AM
Despite the threat of oil in the marsh from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, a few fishers from Dallas and Shreveport braved the 40-knot wind and returned to Cypress Cove Marina in Venice with a pile of redfish Saturday.
It was the most common expression across the southeast Louisiana fishing community this week as the river of oil from a blown-out rig on the Gulf of Mexico began flowing onto the coast in what officials say could be a two- to three-month flood of toxic chemicals and sticky tars.
Terror was the correct emotion.
The delta of the Mississippi River isn’t a sandy tourist beach. It isn’t a line of solid sand and rock on the other side of a highway that can be easily reached, cleaned and repaired with bulldozers and dump trucks. It is 70 wetland miles from the nearest road, and it isn’t a coastline. The edge of this coast resembles the bottom of a broken jigsaw puzzle, hundreds of miles of zigs and zags, of odd-shaped pieces that don’t fit together, of grass and mud, bayous, passes, bays, ponds and lagoons sprinkled with grassy islands.
That vast, uneven interface of water, grass and mud is the engine that drives the most productive fish and wildlife habitat in the lower 48 states, one of the greatest coastal estuaries on the planet. The people who make their living and take their pleasure in that ecosystem know this; they know how important it is and how difficult it will be to find and remove millions of barrels of crude oil that might wash over it.
So they were terrified. And that terror was justified late Friday when the state closed all fishing — recreational and commercial — east of the Mississippi River, fearing contaminated seafood might be caught and consumed. The closure does not include lakes Borgne, St. Catherine and Pontchartrain, but does include the marshes around and south of Lake Borgne.
The economic impact of the recreational closures alone will be huge. The state recently put the value of saltwater coastal fishing at $757 million annually — and most of that is centered around the southeastern end of the state, the most threatened by the spill and the closures. There are dozens of marinas and lodges and hundreds of guides, but there also are more than 100,000 sports fishers whose weekly forays keep marinas, bait dealers, tackle stores and boat dealers in business.
Most of that economy was entering its top money-making months, the warm-weather fishing season that stretches from April through October.
The closure meant legendary launching spots such as Pointe a la Hache, Delacroix, Hopedale, Shell Beach and Reggio were out of business — just as the prime, fish-catching and money-making seasons arrived.
“This isn’t going to cripple us, it’s going to totally kill us for at least this year and — what’s even scarier — maybe for several years to come, ” said Robert Campo, of Campo’s Shell Beach Marina. “How are we going to pay our bills? Where do we get the money for the mortgage? How do we pay the utilities to keep the lights on?
“What the hell do we do to survive now that all of a sudden none of us can fish?”
Help may be on the way. Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Secretary Robert Barham, said the state today will announce a program that would provide funding to commercial fishers, boat captains, marina owners and others who have been shut out from their livelihoods by the closures. He said the payments would be long-term to cover the spill and its aftermath.
But marina owners and fishermen wondered about the long-term impact.
Campo’s has been a New Orleans fishing and cultural landmark for more than 100 years, a period in which the only closures were for Christmas Day and hurricanes. The marina and Shell Beach community has been wiped out by storms three times and moved from its original location on the Lake Borgne shoreline when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet. Each time the community and marina rebuilt.
Campo said the spill is a more serious hurdle.
“Katrina put us out of business for three months, but what do we do if we’re out of business for a year or more?” he said. “I know how to rebuild and keep going after hurricanes. I don’t know how to deal with this. I’d rather face another Katrina.”
The big storm was the most common unit of measure across the marsh this week, as the fishing community tried to evaluate the spill impact. It didn’t fare well.
“Katrina only lasted two or three days, this is going to be hitting us for two or three months, and then maybe years after that, ” said Louie Viavant of Chef Harbor Marina.
Katrina blew Viavant, his wife Beata and their house into Lake Borgne, where they had to survive in towering waves with the gators, nutria and raccoons. He said the spill has produced even more anxiety than that experience.
“It’s the uncertainty, ” Viavant said. “It’s not knowing how bad this is going to be, how long it’s going to last. It’s awful.”
There was no uncertainty for marina owners and bait dealers.
“It’s going to put me out of business, ” said Glenn Sanchez of Breton Sound Marina in Hopedale. “This is the start of our busiest time of the year. We just came through the worst winter anyone can remember where we struggled to get by, planning to make our living in the months ahead, and now this?
“This changes everything as we know it. I don’t have a clue how I’ll make a living.”
One answer already was en route to those small fishing towns. First the world’s media descended on Venice and other fishing ports and rented lodges and camps, hired charter boat skippers and shrimpers to take them on tours of the coast. By the weekend, companies that specialize in cleaning oil spills were taking over and planning for a long stay.
Charter skipper Frank Moore of Shell Beach spent his weekend driving the media around, and said his lodge, which sleeps 19, already had been rented indefinitely by a clean-up crew.
“I just started my busiest season — I’m booked every day almost through October, ” he said of his trips that cost between $500 and $1,2000, depending on the number of anglers. “But it looks like I might be able to make some of this up with the clean-up crews.
“And they say the companies are hiring boats for $575 a day plus $40 an hour. So that could save me.”
That could save the people who make a living on the water. It won’t do much for the tens of thousands of private anglers who can’t fish, or the marinas that can’t launch them, the boat dealers and tackle shops that can’t equip them.
It also won’t make up for the pure joy and relaxation of lost fishing trips, and it won’t remove that feeling of terror that this could hurt the nation’s most important coastal habitat for years to come.
NET SEASON RECONSIDERED: An emergency resolution passed by the Plaquemines Parish Council to allow a three-month season for strike-netting on redfish probably will be rescinded at the next meeting, according to Don Beshel, the council president.
The resolution caught the recreational fishing industry by surprise because the issue was not on the meeting agenda. Instead, the issue was brought up using a suspension of rules for emergencies. The reaction from fishermen was immediate and angry.
Beshel admitted “it was brought up kind of on the sly and caught people by surprise, so we’ll reconsider it at the next meeting.”
The St. Bernard Parish Council passed a similar ordinance.
Fishing regulations are established by the state, so any changes would have to be approved by the Legislature.