May 04, 2010
Oil Spill Live: Will the Booms Protect the Marshes?
By Hal Herring
Editor’s Note: Field & Stream Contributing Editor Hal Herring and photographer/FlyTalk blogger Tim Romano are at the Louisiana coast this week to cover the impact of the oil spill on the region’s sportsmen. Their reports, photographs, and videos will be posted here at The Conservationist blog.
Hopedale, Louisiana -- Somewhere out there is an oil slick the size of Puerto Rico, and growing by the day. With fishing closed east of the mouth of the Mississippi River, there is a deep quiet- a limbo- over the docks along the bayou here. Fishing guides Travis Holeman and Jonathan Sanchez are studying a map of their home country, a fantastically complicated 186,000 acres of marsh grass and mud and oyster beds, lost ponds and snaking channels, rich with big bull redfish, speckled trout, flounder, black drum, shrimp. The people of the bayou walk past on the road, or drive by in old salt-burned pickups stacked high with the crab traps that have been pulled from the marshes by orders that came from far away from this wild place. Here is where edges of the land merge with the ocean in a kind of boiling gumbo of sea life, the harvesting of which has put food on the table and cash in the pockets of generations of men and women and children who have refused the life of cubicles and office parks for the kind of strenuous, dangerous freedom--and often poverty--that most Americans no longer understand.
So far, a north wind and the hydraulic power of the Mississippi River have kept the oil from reaching these marshes. Nobody knows how long that can last. The wellhead, 5000 feet down in the once blue water of the Gulf, keeps on pumping oil. The Coast Guard has reported that there is oil on the Chandeleur Islands, which is devastating news for anyone who has fished there. But that word—devastating--seems to have no meaning here in the inland bayous. The idea that this famed seafood place, this renowned sport fishery, this kind of riot of nature, could be contaminated with oil is simply too much for the human imagination. That’s a big part of the feeling of limbo.
This long boom, installed in open water, is getting overwashed in very moderate seas.
Late in the afternoon, Holeman takes us on a run in his boat through the marsh to look at the booms that are supposed to hold back the oil, when and if it comes. He is suspicious of the efforts, and indeed, they do look pitiful, long twists of orange vinyl fabric, slightly inflated, strung across the mouth of the channels into the marsh, and anchored deep into the mud. “They are not using local knowledge as to where to place these things,” Holeman said. “The only ones that will work are the ones that close off the smaller channels. On these long reaches, the booms are already overwashed, and this isn’t even a wind in here. This is nothing.”
The smallest waves pound at the booms, splash over them, the current (surprisingly fierce, for this whole place, which sometimes looks still, is in constant motion) forces them into great snaking loops here and there. It does, indeed, look pretty pitiful.
Holeman guns the boat and swings away fast, up yet another channel and past the ruins of an old camphouse, half lost in the water. “We have to protect the interior of the marsh. That’s the nursery, and that’s the only place where the booms will hold.” The plans, of course, are more grandiose. Fifty to 70 miles of boom have already been set in southern Louisiana, much of it in rough open water, with varying degrees of success in making it hold. According to locals, there was no more boom material available at Hopedale to set in the interior channels, which infuriates Holeman and others who know this place.
Holeman indicates areas of the marsh that he thinks need the most protection.
Traveling back in the near dark, through channels I could not find and decipher if it meant my life, what does not seem pitiful is the marsh itself. It’s a hundred different colors of green that change as the sun sets and drops. The surface of the water is quivering here and there with dense schools of rain minnows, that suddenly scatter with a ripping sound as some predator strikes into them. Mullet leap, gulls whirl in the air over schools of bait. It seems impossible that this could ever stop.
Video: Fishing guides Travis Holeman and Jonathan Sanchez describe where they think the oil booms should be located, and why.