A Fisherman's Farewell? Gulf Residents Fight for Their Future 15 Months After the BP Blowout

Mark Stewart is a third generation fisherman from the Mississippi Gulf fishing community of Pass Christian. He's a proud and tough working man of the sea, used to hauling in nets until his arms nearly fall off and fishing all night until his eyelids are crusted shut like a saltine sandwich. That’s the life he knows, the life he wouldn’t have any other way.

And it’s the life he fears he may never lead again.

Ever since BP’s mammoth Deepwater Horizon rig blew 15 months ago, Mark’s life—and the lives of thousands of fishermen across the Gulf—has never been the same. Many say they were poisoned by oil and chemical dispersants after being thrust into cleanup jobs they were woefully unprepared for.

But it’s the aftermath that really worries them now. Stewart and his fishing colleagues say the 4.9 million barrels of BP oil spewed into the sea is wreaking havoc with their fishing grounds and threatening their livelihoods. Fishermen like Stewart are seeing what they describe as their worst nightmare, the collapse of teeming fisheries that were once the most productive in the world. But not now, they say. Shrimp, oysters, crab, nearly all of the bounty of the sea appear to be disappearing. What fishermen describe now sounds more like the Rocky Horror Picture Show than the Gulf. Here’s how Stewart puts it:

There’s a complete lack of shrimp out there right now. I’ve never seen it like this before. Shrimp with deformities, some with rotten tails, no eyes, smashed faces. I’ve seen some fish that look like they’ve been dipped in battery acid, some with lesions and livers on their outsides. Sharks and porpoises are washing up regularly. Scientists say the killifish—we call them bull minnows—have deformities. It’s just like with Alaska and the Exxon Valdez. The fish that keeps everything in balance goes extinct…none of us know what the hell we will do.

Mark says he hasn’t been able to catch much shrimp for four months, and now he has no idea how he will make it through the winter. So it was a shock to him and other fishermen when they attended a Mississippi Department of Natural Resources meeting last week and discovered the state was claiming shrimp catches were close to normal. That brought howls of protest from fishermen, and the agency is now investigating. Mark and others believe a lot of those numbers are falsely inflated with imported shrimp brought in from Asia, a battle they’ve been fighting for years. 

What’s causing these dramatic shrimp declines is still unknown, government officials say. Some blame the floods last spring for pushing high levels of water into traditional fishing grounds. But many fishermen don’t buy it; they blame the oil. Fish and shrimp can move, and they can survive inflows of fresh water. Fishermen say if they're out there, they know how to catch them. But so far, most haven't been able to.     

But even for the ones they catch, Stewart says he’s worried about what’s in them and what’s causing the strange deformities he and his colleagues are seeing. “The oil spill just wrecked eating seafood for me,” he says. “I wonder if I should eat it or not. I just don’t know what’s in it.”

That’s a stunning statement coming from a veteran shrimper. But there’s good reason to be concerned. According to a recent peer-reviewed NRDC study, the Food and Drug Administration seriously underestimates the risk of contaminants in seafood, especially for vulnerable populations of pregnant women and children. NRDC filed a petition with FDA demanding that the agency update its science and fix how it assesses the threat of chemical contaminants to protect the food supply.

Here’s how NRDC’s Miriam Rotkin-Ellman described it in a recent blog:

We found that FDA’s calculation of allowable levels of contaminants in seafood, after BP's 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, was based on outdated science. As a result, FDA’s “safe levels” were not safe for vulnerable populations because they allowed up to 10,000 times too much cancer-causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) contamination in Gulf seafood.

But while there are worries about seafood safety, many fishermen simply worry about how to catch it. Some of the biggest shrimp docks have closed since there’s so little product coming in these days. Grand Isle’s Dean Blanchard, once the biggest shrimp buyer on the Gulf coast, is now considering closing his doors after a lifetime of a building a successful shrimp business. He says his white shrimp catch this season is down 99 percent in some areas, and that fishermen he has worked with for decades are giving him bad checks and trying to work on credit. That’s no way to run a business. Here’s the way Blanchard describes it:   

We’re seeing all kinds of problems, shrimp with no eyes and no baby fish. Boats are reporting five and six dead dolphins a day. Our beach is producing less than 1 percent of the shrimp. Grand Isle used to be the best fishing grounds in the country. Our bay is full of oil and our beach is dead they’ve used so many dispersants….I don’t think we’ll have a fishing industry here in two or three years. Everyone is running out of money...I’d rather have 100 Katrinas than one BP spill.


Shrimp with deformed eyes and oily goop on Grand Isle   Photos: Mac MacKenzie

But it’s not just a bad shrimp catch that has people on the Gulf worried. Crab fishermen and oystermen also are reporting dramatically bad catches this year. They wonder if Americans will even be able to buy normal amounts of Gulf seafood in the future. Ocean Springs, MS, fisherman Lorrie Williams says she’s been pulling up pots full of dead crabs for months, some covered in black that “look like they been walking across a tar road.”

What really worries her is what comes next. “We’re not seeing the baby crabs like you usually see. Normally they’re crawling all over your arms when you pull up the pots. Not anymore. As bad as the crabbing was this year, I’m afraid there won’t be a season next year.”

Meanwhile, dolphins, the revered icon of the Gulf, continue to die in unusually high numbers—at least 400 so far. As NRDC’s Michael Jasny has blogged, “It is difficult to think of a mass mortality that has lasted as long, has involved so many animals or has taken down so many calves.”  Experts say there could be 50 times as many dolphin victims that are never found.

One of those may have been seen last week by Lorrie Williams on Mississippi’s Horn Island, a barrier bird-breeding habitat that was heavily oiled after the blowout. Cleanup crews still are trying to remove the thick oily crude that contaminates the area. Williams says she was taking pictures of the island and later discovered that one included a dead dolphin lying on the sand in front of cleanup workers. When she returned a short while later and took another photo of the area, it was gone, she says.

Dead dolphin on Horn Island and cleanup crews at work    Photos: Lorrie Williams

Williams doesn't know who took the dolphin. But she says there was still plenty of oil for the taking. “There was thick fresh oil out there,” Williams says. "These weren’t weathered tar balls. It was thick gooey stuff that looked like bird poop. I didn’t know what it was until I got it on my hand, and then I couldn’t get it off.”

Stories like that makes many residents worried sick about their future. They complain politicians and the media continue to ignore them thanks to BP's massive infusion of money spent on PR and ad campaigns. But how to fight back? This is how Danny Ross, a 7th generation fisherman from Ocean Springs, MS, put it to me:

I know the water I work in, and something’s wrong. But they keep saying everything ok and the problems don’t exist. Well if you look at the history of the Exxon Valdez and other oil spills, you know that’s what they always say…I’m just trying to hold onto my sanity. I’ll keep doing what I do even if I just make catch $100 worth of shrimp a trip. I’m too old and too ugly to do anything else, and McDonalds won’t have me.

There are many who feel the way Ross does. This is more than their livelihood at stake, it's their culture. It's the only thing they know, and they say they will stick with it until their dying day.

But some in the Gulf are wondering if that day has already come.