Gulf fishermen organize to challenge state and federal officials

Like most Gulf state Department heads, Dr. William Walker of the Mississippi Dept of Marine Resources is a virtual "one man gang." Until and unless the eminent Haley Barbour himself calls up to weigh in, Walker answers to no one.

When asked at a recent public forum by US Navy Secretary Ray Mabus to tell the audience which exact body or group of people in Mississippi had considered public health and safety in ruling to re-open State waters and beaches impacted by the now-capped BP Oil gusher - Doctor Walker bellowed from the back of the packed room, "I did!"

"Now see there, y'all. Now what kinda mess is THAT to call 'government'? Or to call 'science' that citizens can trust? He's just ONE man!"  shouted a local gentleman known to many, including Walker and his DMR staff, as "Catfish" - one of dozens of cash-strapped, sick, frightened and increasingly angry Mississippi fishermen and spouses who have come together 4 times in the past 5 days to organize and speak up for themselves.

The first of these instances was when they historically set aside their well known preference for independence over organization and came from 5 states to a Monday afternoon meeting in Biloxi - to identify and embrace their common goals and top concerns. About 24 hours later, they had collectively drafted a strong and clear statement of demands and stood ready for their first press conference: a live baptism of sorts which ended up being the "lead story" on the local television news and the station's companion website.

Coming straight from the folks with the most to lose, the fishermen's statement and demands were simple, hard to refute, and refreshingly humane. With others scrambling to manipulate science and law to reckon BP's liability for untold damages and claims of all kinds, the fishermen simply don't want to choose between starving and making other people sick.

Plain, straight and simple, their demands are: 1. For BP to stop using dispersents on the oil, 2. For Mississippi and other Gulf states to re-close Gulf and inland fisheries until appropriate tissue testing for chemical dispersents confirms the safety of the seafood that they LOVE to catch and sell, and 3. For local commercial fishermen and seafood workers to be the first hired and last-fired in the short and longterm cleanup of the northern Gulf's severely-tainted waters (which is what they'd rather do than fish right now).
Emboldened by their new found voice and its powerful resonance across the coast, Catfish and some 50 others from FL, AL, MS, LA and TX marched straight into Tuesday afternoon's plenary session of the Gulf of Mexico Alliance's (GOMA's) annual convening of Gulf Coast governors, federal and state environmental agencies, research scientists, and educators.

The scheduled speaker, Secretary Mabus, had cancelled the day before, and all 5 governors were conspicuously missing in action, but EPA Gulf of Mexico Program Director Bryon Griffith did allow the group to air their concerns to a very large room of mostly scientists and educators. They did so again during the following morning's even larger plenary session, also held at the Beau Rivage Casino Hotel in Biloxi.
So where are CNN? Or FOX? Or better yet, either our state or our federal "Sound-Bite-in-Chief"?  If not for this small but growing group of directly impacted self-advocates who are embracing one another from near and afar - all we would be hearing this week about the Gulf Drilling Disaster from media, or from the federal and state enablers of BP's Clean-Up and Spin Plantation, is:  "Well capped, Oil gone, Gulf clean, Shrimp tasty, Slaves happy, Story over".

But quite to the contrary, Catfish and others currently forced by BP and government into a cynical "damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't" existence are outright infuriated by exactly this condescending and monotonous garbage that ALL of us are being fed on TV and in endless Gulf Coast "Listening Sessions" and "Town Hall Forums" with government officials.

While it is no surprise to many that MS Governor Barbour (with more years as a Big Oil lobbyist than as Mississippi's Governor) has deftly managed to keep himself and his minions "on-message" for several months ("what oil?"), the Obama Administration's now tiresome parade of agency "listeners" might do better to stay at home and think up something, ANYTHING, to publicly admit has gone wrong since the Disaster began. As Chris LaForce, an Alabama fisherman from fictional Forrest Gump's very real Bayou LeBatre, recently said of Coast Guard, NOAA, EPA and other federal emissaries, "It's like they've all been given the same frontal labotomy by BP or someone."

As difficult as it is for me to say so, I must agree that President Obama himself is straight up tripping, and it's embarrassing. Using the world champion New Orleans Saints' recent visit to the White House to stage a major advertisement for post-Deepwater Horizon Louisiana shrimp was simply irresponsible, as well as cartoonish. Did Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and that Cop from Cambridge show up with more cold beer? Woo-Hooooo! WHO DAT! Yes We can!
In the meantime, Gulf Coast commercial fishermen and their families have had their backs virtually slammed against the steepest and widest wall they could ever imagine. Worse than Valdez, and worse than Katrina. In response, they are building a powerful and natural alliance of working families from multiple races, ethnicities, states and docks - from Bayou Barataria, Pointe la Hache, Pass Christian, Biloxi Bay, Bayou La Batre, and deep into Florida - to fight for themselves and for our entire nation's HEALTH and SAFETY.

These men and women should be honored as American heroes, and openly engaged as earnest problem solvers; not discarded or spoken down to like dumb, out-of-luck misfits from nowhere - who haven't got a clue about seafood, water quality, disaster recovery or the rights of United States citizens. Who will join them before it's too late? From east Texas to the Florida panhandle, they have been supported by local grantee organizations and friends of the Gulf Coast Fund for Community Renewal and Ecological Health.