FOR COMMERCIAL fishermen like James Blanchard of Houma, La., lowering his 63-foot vessel named Waymaker into the Gulf of Mexico each May signifies a time-honored tradition: the beginning of shrimp season.
Each May, government regulators head to various local estuaries to size up the local shrimp population. If they’re big enough, the season begins and shrimpers like Blanchard take to local inland bays and shallow waterways, cast their nets and come up with fists full of prawns. In a typical season, Blanchard says he can pull in roughly $250,000 in gross sales.
But as the BP oil spill spreads in the Gulf of Mexico, the start of shrimp season is in doubt this year. “There’s no telling what could happen,” says Blanchard. “I’ve been a commercial shrimper for 32 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this before — not even after [Hurricane] Katrina.”
Instead of readying the Waymaker to accommodate his catch, Blanchard is learning about how his vessel can play a role in BP’s cleanup efforts. For his part, Blanchard has been attending BP training sessions with other area fishermen and learning about oil booms — fire-resistant plastic tubing that is used to capture and consolidate oil. (Once the contaminated water is moved farther off shore, it will be burned.) As of last Thursday, over 180,000 feet of boom already had been deployed, and another 300,000 feet were forward staged, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the federal agency charged with overseeing the conditions of the country’s oceans and atmosphere.
Safety concerns drove NOAA on Sunday to halt fishing for at least 10 days in federal waters, largely between Louisiana state waters at the mouth of the Mississippi River to waters off Pensacola Bay in Florida. Shrimpers are now restricted mostly to state waters, primarily on the east side of the Gulf, because of the oil spill, says Deborah Long, a spokeswoman for the Southern Shrimp Alliance, a Tarpon Springs, Fla.-based group that represents the U.S. wild?caught shrimp industry. “More closures are expected as the oil spill continues to grow and spreads toward Mississippi, Alabama and Florida waters,” she says. Beyond closures, however, if the spill’s conditions worsen, the slick could wind up causing “irreparable damage,” Long says.
That’s what Bobby Jindal, Louisiana’s governor, is also worried about. The waters off the coast of Louisiana supply nearly one-third of all commercial seafood harvested in the lower 48 states, with values in excess of $2.85 billion annually, according to a letter from Jindal to Gary Locke, the secretary of the Department of Commerce. In the letter, Jindal urged Locke to declare commercial fisheries failures, and requested support from the Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration for commercial and recreational fishing businesses. “As the largest provider of domestic seafood in the continental United States, protection of Louisiana’s fisheries, habitats and catch are critical to our nation’s economy and food supply,” he said.
Longtime fisherwoman Kay Brandhurst says the damages caused by the oil slick could become more widespread. “Just walk around, and you can smell it in the air,” she says. “The air quality — people say it won’t harm you — but I can feel it in the back of my throat,” says Brandhurst, who co-owns with her husband, Ray, Four Winds Seafood, a boutique seafood supplier in Chalmette, La. She says in the days just before NOAA halted fishing, officials had been urging fishermen to get what they could — before the spill reached the coast. However, Brandhurst and her husband fear the worst. “It is not looking good with these Southeast winds,” she says, adding that shutting down for the entire season is a possibility. If that happens, Brandhurst isn’t sure what to do. “I don’t have a plan B,” she says. “This is what normally sustains us.”
Any damages to the tourism industry in the areas abutting the Gulf of Mexico, which include Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida, also remain to be seen, says Jeff Shyman, the founder of New Orleans-based bicycle tour company, Confederacy of Cruisers. “We haven’t seen any cancelations yet,” he says. “But our first concern is for the fishing and oyster industries that could get destroyed for generations if this worsens. For them and us, we’re hoping that we can get this capped as quickly as possible.”
—Write to Diana Ransom at email@example.com
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