"The Gulf was My Church" – A Fisherman Reflects on Loving, and Leaving, the Gulf Coast

joey yerkes vooBy Joey Yerkes.  April 21st, 2012.   On this day two years ago I was anchored up on the East side of Destin pass, stocking up with live cigar minnows, waiting for the morning rush of boats to come out the pass. It was still dark, and pretty early, so I kicked back and gathered my thoughts before the rush. There was a faint smell of burnt crude in the air, and I already knew what had happened the night before. That morning the wind was a very light WSW. As I sat there praying for anyone that might have been injured during the disaster, the radio startled me.

"Bait boat, you out there Joey?"

"Go ahead, Cap" I replied.
"Can you believe that it blew up?"

I was speechless as I then knew the magnitude of the disaster.  What I did not know was that my life would change forever that day, and so would the lives of many others.  I decided to come in early after the rush to try to catch the news and find out any details about the explosion.

Over the course of the next few weeks, I knew my livelihood as a cast net fisherman was in jeopardy, especially if they didn't stop the leak pretty quick. If you grew up in the Gulf, you kinda know what can happen if a rig blows up.  OIL, and lots of it, flows into the ocean. But wait, they have a mechanism that supposedly seals the wellhead right? Maybe it won’t be so bad.  I felt so much sympathy for the workers who lost their lives that night, and for the families who lost loved ones. Man, I love my daughter so much, I thought to myself.

I can't remember who told us about the meeting in Pensacola regarding BP hiring boats to work clean up, but I was going to be the first one there to sign up, considering it’s not feasible to throw a cast net with oil in the water. My business partner and myself were waiting for them to unlock the door for the meeting. After an hour or so of questions, a few very elementary videos, and some big promises, we took the contracts home. We were signed up for the now infamous VOO program, Vessels of Opportunity.

For the next few months we looked for, documented, and cleaned up oil and dead wildlife from the spill. At the time of the big July stand down, when clean-up operations were scaled back and a large number of VOO workers were fired, we saw more oil than ever before, and things were getting worse. My boat never got called back.  We wanted to wear respirators, but we were informed that if we show up with, or get caught wearing any kind of respirator or mask, it would result in unemployment.

Sometime in August, I started getting very bad headaches and noticed I just wasn't feeling right. Despite feeling bad everyday now, I decided to go back fishing after receiving my termination letter in the mail. Oh well, back to reality, I guess. Not many of us had been on the water in weeks, due to the fact that we were still contracted and could be called back at any moment, known as being on "stand by".  I had been sick, so really I was out of the loop as to the oil locations or latest sightings. I anchored on the East side of the pass, not unlike the onset of this story, and began to fish. After 30 minutes of casting, I noticed myself getting dizzy and nauseous, and my skin started to burn. Next thing you know I was throwing up violently and didn't know if I was even going to be able to get back to the dock. Well, I have never been one to let the flu stop me from working, so I went back the next night to try again. 30 minutes, same result, despite fishing a whole new area off the beach. It's been downhill ever since for me, as my health fell apart from then on.

Dr. Riki Ott. What can I say about her? Without her advice, I don't know if I would be here today.  A survivor of the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, she came down to the Gulf and told us what to expect, told us about the affects that oil and corexit would have on our health and the environment.  I finally found Dr. Rodney Soto, who immediately put me in a detox program and began to run the proper tests. This is after weeks of other doctors treating me with antibiotics, which made me worse, hot baths with sludge around the rim of the tub afterwards, and too many symptoms to count. "What the hell is happening to me? Am I dying? I’ve never been sick like this in my life." Throughout detox, I did some traveling to raise awareness and help other fisherman and residents who didn't know how to get help. I eventually got so tired and sick, I just couldn't do it anymore. I left the Gulf, my home, in mid November that year.

One of the saddest days of my life was when I had to watch my daughter Addyson leave in the car, knowing I would probably never bring her back to the Gulf. Ever since June 15th, 2009, the day she was born, I dreamed of the days I could take her on the boat and begin to teach her about life on the water, and what it means to respect Mother Nature, and how lucky we are to have this incredible resource in our backyard. Over the course of the last 26 or so years, I have worked many boats, fished many bodies of water, made many people smile as they caught their first fish, fed many families with the seafood I caught and sold, and even had several perilous close calls with death on the water. The Gulf was my church. 

I'm very lonely nowadays as I spend most of my time surviving the health issues I face on a daily basis. I lost all my friends. I lost my social life. I lost my livelihood. If it wasn't for the times I spend with my daughter, my inspiration, I would have nothing to live for anymore. She is the reason I fight this daily, and continue to work to support her and myself. 

Oh, the money ran out after 7 months of treatments that consisted of 2-4 IV drips a week, a special, very expensive diet, and 40+ pills a day. Today, I can only afford some of the pills I'm supposed to take for the rest of my life. It amounts to around 35 pills a day, or $300 monthly. I walk with a cane now to help keep my balance (vertigo), and help me walk with the excruciating pain I suffer from in my joints and muscles. I cannot carry my daughter and walk at the same time, much less run or really play with her. Sure, I make the best of it, and she loves me no matter what. I am truly blessed to have her, and she is why I will continue to fight this. My day begins with my face in the toilet, as vomiting is a way of life now. I have to use my GPS when I drive so I know how to get places I drive to daily. Without it I am lost. My house is full of sticky notes as reminders to do daily tasks. The list goes on...

So I write this today, on the day of the second anniversary of the disaster that changed my life forever. I'm coming back. Oh, mark these words BP, I'm coming back. I just found out that all of this is worth around $70,000.00, and read that that is more than fair and sufficient to "make it right."  I got news for you, this time I'm not going to be the "accidental activist" as Dr. Ott has called me on several occasions; I'm on a mission. It will be very much on purpose this time, and you will know who I am. God bless you all who fight daily for our voices to be heard, and I hope that when the day comes that I can return to visit "on purpose" this time, you will once again accept my friendship and reopen your doors. As for you BP, you don't scare me. Follow me, threaten me, park at the end of my street, I don't care. You won’t have to look for me, I won’t be far away.

All photos courtesy of Joey Yerkes.