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._
12 miles off South Pass, Venice, Louisiana_–I’m not trying to be dramatic, but the oil spill, once you find it, looks more like a wide and shimmering mat of raw sewage than petrochemicals released from thousands of feet beneath the bottom of the ocean. It is orange- one could surmise that it contains iron that is oxidizing like rusty blobs of pot metal, exposed to the air on the surface of what used to be blue water. Held in the hand, it has the consistency of warm axle grease, and is at least as hard to remove, given that we are far from the nearest tub of Go-Jo. In the orange mat, which stretches out of sight in the snake-like contours of the ocean current that pushes and pulls it, trash is mired, along with hundreds of rainbow-hued Portuguese men-of-war, the big jellyfish of the Gulf (_see photo). At one point, a big loggerhead turtle can be seen, in the mat, eating an oil-covered man-of war. It has always amazed me that these turtles’ favorite snack is a hyper-weird creature with long tentacles covered with stinging cells, but the ocean is another world, not bound by the rules, or desires, or disgusts, of mankind.
The loggerhead sounds. A purplish twist of chomped-off man-of-war tentacles remain suspended in the orange slime. Charterboat Captain Damon McKnight, who has fished this part of the Gulf for 13 years, would normally be deep drifting hardtails or big squid for swordfish right through here, or helping his fisherman battle one of the big yellowfins that have made the place so famous. McKnight remarks that today the oil has a bad smell to it, like something rotting, and that he can taste it in his mouth. Later he will say that he never thought this could happen. “I never thought it would. Now that I think about it, I should have known the risk was there.” He says he can hold out a couple of months through the closing of the fishing, but it will be tough. “We had a real tough winter here, too.”
In places the orange slime is smeared and spread like a sunburst, and we are told that this is a result of being sprayed with dispersal agents by BP, which is responsible for the spill. Beneath the floating slime mat there is what looks like a blizzard of clear or white globules extending down into the water. I am told this is oil that has not yet been exposed to the air, but nobody seems to know exactly what it is, just as nobody seems to know what is in the “dispersal agents” that are being applied in massive amounts, to the spill, all across the eastern Gulf. Clearly, some answers are badly needed.
Video: National Wildlife Federation CEO Larry Shweiger (who was also on the boat that took Tim and Hal to see the slick firsthand) discusses the uncertainty surrounding how toxic dispersant chemicals and dispersed oil may impact fishing in the Gulf.
Twenty-five years ago, I worked for awhile on a longline boat out of Destin, Florida, making two eight mile sets of gear, twice a day, for swordfish. It was the first real money I ever made. We’d be out for six to eight days, travelling over 200 miles sometimes, and our sets were sometimes not that far from where we were this afternoon-just farther south, farther out in the blue. One night I was on wheel watch, on that long ago boat, and we were in some kind of heavy offshore current, a river of salt water rushing by the hull. The phosphorescence in the water was extraordinary, like nothing I’ve seen before or since. Jellyfish, glowing like discs of pale fire, sailed by, hundreds of them, different kinds, different strange planetary shapes. It was hard to say where the surface of the water began and ended in the pitch dark. Below them, larger fish in hunting groups shot across like meteors. Small flying fish broke the surface with a scatter of light, then struck against the surface of a coming swell with another. The show went on for hours, until the eastern horizon showed a band of slowly lightening blue, and I turned the wheel over to a crewmate, and went to bed. I’ve never thought of the ocean in the same way since that night. That was what I was remembering as we left the oil spill and headed back to the mouth of the Mississippi River at South Pass.