On Gulf, coming tourist, fishing seasons will reveal oil spill legacy
A year after the Deepwater Horizon explosion triggered the mammoth Gulf oil spill, fishermen, hotel owners, and oil workers in Grand Isle, La., aren't sure if the old nature-oil balance can be regained.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Grand Isle, La.
Louisiana's only stretch of beach is perhaps prettier than ever, its rough sand smoothed daily by armadas of BP-funded beach zambonis combing for tar patties. At the bayside wharf, shrimp boats and crab skiffs are freshly painted and ready to go. Twenty-three fishing rodeos are back on the calendar.
A remote barrier spit, Grand Isle, La., is gearing up for high season a year after the world's largest offshore oil spill in peacetime. But behind the seagull-specked Gulf-side idyll, there's a deep crack in the island's Cajun bravura.
This is the moment America's Gulf Coast has been both anticipating and dreading. The moratorium on drilling in the Gulf has been lifted, and within the next month or so, the tourist season will begin in earnest and the first postspill fishing season will commence. Since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20, 2010, the Gulf has been waiting to return to normal. The months ahead will be the first real test of whether that is possible.
By many measures, there is reason to hope. One comprehensive study suggests that finfish, shrimp, crab, and oyster stocks have remained largely resilient to the spill. Moreover, President Obama's recent speech backing more domestic oil production sent signals that the offshore industry could be revitalized.
Yet the mood on Grand Isle is one of pervasive angst. Hurricanes come and go and people here are used to rebuilding, but in these drawn-out weeks of suspense, residents have little to do but wait. Many worry that the worst of the BP oil spill has yet to arrive. Fish and crab catches are down in some areas. And storms shake up stagnant oil, washing weathered tar patties ashore as reminders of the "disappeared" oil that the vast majority of islanders believe has settled to the bottom, ready to be stirred up by the next hurricane.
"This thing is far from over," says one shrimp dealer, echoing the comments of many others on the island. "If you think anything else, you're not paying the least bit of attention."
Gulf Coasters want to move on, but the spill hasn't let them, partly because of the nature of the disaster.
"When the BP oil spill happened, not everybody was able to put hands on the plow and clean it up, which meant the usual process of dealing with tragedy was not available as a way of escape," says John Boss, pastor of Grand Isle's First Baptist Church. "This island was not used to that. It played tricks on their minds, and the focus and stress were toward conversations that got little results other than more stress."
Grand Isle is a unique corner of America – both microcosm and amplification of the natural wealth of the Gulf, which provides the country with more than 50 percent of its domestic oil production and 83 percent of its domestic shrimp catch. Islanders grow up working all facets of Grand Isle's mix of boats, offshore oil fields, and beachside snow-cone stands.
It is this blend of natural bounty and industrial exploitation that unsettled the Gulf generally and Grand Isle in particular. For the first time, the two have come into direct conflict, adding to the region's sense of uncertainty.
Oil and fishing "had worked in harmony before, and I think that's why it's been so confusing for people to process their emotions," says Pastor Boss. "Now fishermen were not in harmony with the oil field, and the oil field was not in harmony with the fishermen, and you had this constant tug and pull."
In short, it illustrated the argument that environmentalists have been making for decades: The spill was "a real-time example of how the Gulf has been the nation's sacrifice zone," says Aaron Viles, deputy director of the Gulf Restoration Network, a New Orleans-based environmental organization.
Siding with environmentalists against the oil industry – the economic lifeblood of the region – is an unfamiliar and unsettling proposition for many here. To be sure, Mayor David Camardelle and the vast majority of residents remain ardent supporters of the oil industry. Yet the dramatic impact of the spill – and government findings that BP and the Deepwater contractors played fast and loose with the Macondo well – has spilled over into serious and unprecedented questioning of the island's dependence on powerful corporations whose interests sometimes run counter to the long-term survival of Grand Isle.
In an unusual protest after the spill, one resident erected 101 white crosses in his yard painted with the names of spill victims: "Speckled Trout," "Oysters," "Dolphins," "Playing Volleyball."
"I think where the coastal community is on the oil industry now is that, 'We're fine with you being there, we don't want the jobs to go away, but we also need to take care of what we all rely on,' " says Mr. Viles.
For now, scientists say the damage to the Gulf does not appear to be devastating. But the study that showed ecological resilience also noted uncertainties. The complexities of the spill "reveal the difficulty in assessing damages and the near impossibility in predicting the environmental impact or time of recovery," wrote Wes Tunnell of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M Corpus Christi, author of the report.
Specifically, the spill came when the natural defenses of the Gulf were under strain, with algal blooms creating broad oxygen-depleted "dead zones" and coastal marshland rapidly disappearing.
"It is unclear today whether the Gulf is as resilient as it was 30 years ago," Dr. Tunnell writes.
On Grand Isle, there is fear that the spill did irrevocable damage to not just this year's fish catches, but to at least two generations of eggs, fry, and oyster spat that could lead to a fish stock collapse in three or four years. A similar thing happened to the Alaskan herring stocks four years after the Exxon Valdez disaster. Moreover, a February poll showed that 70 percent of Louisianans still have reservations about eating fish, shrimp, and oysters culled from the spill area.
"We'll see what this year brings," says lifelong Grand Isle shrimper Michael Frazier, flashing a brave smile. "We're worried. It's iffy-iffy."
But there are positive signs. With Mr. Obama signaling a greater emphasis on domestic energy, some are hopeful. David, a former deep-water rig worker forced to take a security guard job after the postspill moratorium, is reading the trade magazines for job openings.
"Halliburton and all these guys are now hiring 100, 150 guys," he says. "That means they're gearing up again, which is great. I don't want to spend the rest of my life as a security guard."
Grand Isle folks, however, are not prone to surrender: "They won't let this area go," Boss says. "There's too much at stake."