Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Come Hell or High Water

"The Gulf is on fire!"
Just over a year ago, Louisianians were awakened with shouts of, “The Gulf is on fire!” The Deepwater Horizon, a drilling rig managed by British Petroleum, had exploded, killing many and opening the door to a disaster that would tarnish our shores and seafood industry for years to come. The only question was how bad it would really be.

A shrimping village
As millions upon millions of gallons of crude oil poured into the saltwater of the Gulf of Mexico, fishing vessels and the communities that supported them with labor, fuel and fixtures lay dormant along the coastline. Fishing families who for generations had made a living cruising these waters for shellfish, oysters and finfish were now viewing the Deepwater Horizon as their greatest enemy. Their industry and livelihoods were being decimated before their eyes and very little would change for the next year. As seafood seasons came and went, more than 50% of an industry valued at $2.4 million evaporated from the Gulf waters.

Chef Folse watches the river rise
Recently, as government officials remembered the one year anniversary of the disaster and 75% of the fishing community was back at their task, 30% of Louisiana fishing families were still out of work. Luckily, there was hope in the immediate future. In April 2011 a new fishing cycle began.The inside shrimp season opened allowing fishermen to trawl up to three miles into the Gulf. Shortly thereafter, the offshore industry with its higher priced white shrimp opened and hope reigned on the Gulf waters. During the early days of May, finfish prices and supply were rising while blue crab were plentiful and prices stable. Oysters were the only fishery still off by 50%. Overall, things were looking good.

However, with rising hopes came the rising waters of the Mississippi, Atchafalaya and Red rivers. When the snow melts up North, the rushing water heads South, testing the Mississippi levee system, which is one of the largest in the world. It comprises more than 3,500 miles of levees extending some 620 miles along the river. In 2011, Louisiana and other states along the Mississippi’s course will set high-water records and shatter 100-year floodplain predictions. Already, small river villages are drowning in the abundant waters of Big Muddy. To protect the city of New Orleans from impending floodwaters, the man-made spillways protecting the Crescent City were opened, diverting water away from the city and toward Lake Pontchartrain and the Atchafalaya Basin.
Opening of Bonnet Carre Spillway outside New Orleans
Credit: Ted Jackson, Times-Picayune Archive
Eventually, this freshwater will empty into the Gulf, diluting the saltwater so vital to the growth and quality of shellfish and finfish. This freshwater intrusion pushes the species farther into the Gulf to seek the saltwater needed for survival. In doing so, they become more difficult to catch and more fuel is expended to reach their new locations. What was beginning to look like a prosperous year for Louisiana and her fishermen is now uncertain, and Louisiana’s fishermen and small hamlets are in peril once again. The only silver lining is that the Mississippi’s intrusion into the swamplands will assure abundant supplies of crawfish to waterlogged citizens, hotels, restaurants and markets. Louisianians by nature are resilient, bouncing back from adversity time and again. How much more can younger fishing families take both financially and emotionally? They are simply not used to starting over again and again as their parents and grandparents did. Is their love for this lifestyle enough to bring them back? Only time will tell.