Saturday the southeast Louisiana fishing community found out what a single mistake in an offshore oil field can mean: State and federal governments banned all fishing–commercial and recreational–until further notice.
Of course, they know that’s not the worst-case scenario.
They know they take their livelihoods and pleasure from the largest and most productive estuary in the lower 48. And they know 2.9 million gallons of crude that have poured toward it over the last two weeks is just the vanguard of what could eventually be 18.9 million gallons over the next three months. It would be the largest oil spill in history, almost twice the volume of the Exxon Valdez (11 million gallons).
So the loss of business, even during the start of their busiest season, takes a back seat to something else.
“What bothers me even more is what’s going to happen to the habitat?” said Chris Wilson, who runs Rivers End Outfitters in Venice, La., who has close to $800,000 tied up in his business.
“Man, we don’t have much left as it is, and now we’re going to get maybe million of gallons of oil on top of it.
“The habitat is the reason for everything else. How long will that be effected? How long until that comes back? Without the habitat we ain’t got nothing.
“That’s what really scares me about this. Not knowing just how bad this is going to get.”
Here’s what we do know since the Deepwater Horizon blew April 20:
* In a precautionary move Louisiana closed all fishing east of the Mississippi River on Saturday. This is a vast wetland complex covering 10,000 square miles, one of the most prolific shrimping, oystering crabbing, fishing and waterfowling habitats in the nation. It was a preemptive move; no contamination had yet been detected
* Sunday NOAA closed all offshore fishing in the Gulf from the east bank of the Mississippi River to Pensacola, Florida, idling tens of thousands of additional anglers.
* The spill is drifting northeast, which is good news for the Louisiana coast, but increasingly bad news for Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.
* Those in charge of the emergency–BP, which owns the well, and the U.S. Coast Guard–say the best shot at ending the disaster is drilling a relief well, basically, drilling a new hole to intersect the existing well, then pouring fluids in that can plug the flow.
This will take up to three months because the Gulf is 5,000 feet deep here, and the oil is another 18,000 feet below that. BP is confident it can get the job done–but admits it has never done this before.
Meanwhile, other strategies are proceeding, including building huge containment boxes that will be dropped over the leaks on the Gulf floor where they, hopefully, can corral most of the oil as it comes out of the broken pipes, then siphon it off to the surface.
* The army of responders–3,000 and growing–has put out hundreds of miles of containment booms, but a fierce weekend storm made quick work of those, and many will have to be re-set this week.
* That same storm seemed to help disperse the thick blankets of crude that were floating to the coast last week. Little thick oil had been spotted in the wetlands as of Sunday.
* Responders and the legion of international media are waking up to the fact this will be a very, very difficult job in New Orleans.
Those who have never visited this area think they are coming to a traditional beach. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The coastline on the Mississippi River delta is not a line at all, not a static stretch of sand and rocks close to a road that can handle heavy machinery for a quick and easy clean-up. It is 70 wetland miles from the nearest pavement, and there is nothing static about it. It resembles the edges of a broken jig saw puzzle, hundreds of miles of grass and mud that zig and zag along bays, bayous, lagoons, ponds and thousands of islands.
This interface of mud, water and grass is the engine driving the most dynamic fishery in the lower 48. Keeping it oil-free will be impossible; cleaning it will take years, if it can be done at all.
On the plus side, this habitat is constantly trying to renew itself. Water and silt are pouring down the Mississippi River at the rate of millions of cubic feet per second. If that force can be directed into the most damaged areas, the rebound could be quick.
But like the move to staunch the flow, this has never been done before.
That uncertainty is what is creating the most angst among southeast Louisiana’s huge fishing community.
“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?”
The Campo business is more than 100 years old. The business and the community rebuilt after being wiped out by three hurricanes, and being moved from the shoreline of Lake Borgne inland when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet.
The spill is scarier than all of those, Campo said.
“I know how to rebuild and keep going after hurricanes,” Campo said. “I don’t know how to deal with this. I’d rather face another Katrina.”
The disaster is already is changing the local fishing community. BP began hiring hundreds of fishermen–commercial as well as charter captains–at fees of $575 per day plus $40 an hour – to join the citizen navy putting out the booms. Those are better wages than most were making before the accident.
But for 100,000 or more anglers in this part of the world, there will never be an upside, no compensation for the days lost doing what they love most.