BP 2-Year Anniversary: Fishers, Gulf residents struggle to protect a way of life

The following is an excerpt from the Facing South/Institute for Southern Studies report, "Troubled Waters: Two Years after the BP Oil Disaster, A Struggling Gulf Coast Calls for National Leadership for Recovery." Read the full report here [pdf].

TROUBLED WATERS: Protecting a Way of Life

by Sue Sturgis and Chris Kromm

It breaks my heart to see the fishermen here in Hancock County, Miss. or in the coastal parishes in Louisiana or South Alabama lose their way of life as small family commercial fishermen, oyster folks, shrimpers, or subsistence fishers who fish off bridges for their lunch and dinner. That’s a very old and deeply embedded way of life down here that has been fundamentally altered.

– Derrick Evans, Turkey Creek Community Initiatives, Mississippi

Two years after the BP disaster closed 40 percent of Gulf waters to commercial and recreational fishing, officials claim that the region’s vital seafood industry—which accounts for 20 percent of all U.S. seafood production and is valued at $2.3 billion annually in Louisiana alone—has come back.

A BP spokesperson recently told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that shrimp prices and supply remain “within historic ranges.” But the chair of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board challenges that claim, reporting short supplies since the spill.

Commercial fishermen and seafood processors also report that shrimp catches have dropped dramatically in areas affected by the spill, while Mississippi’s oyster reefs remain closed. Many fishermen across the region have been idled.

“They’re just sitting by their boats, hoping and praying that the fishing industry comes back,” says Thao Nguyen, who worked with Vietnamese-American fishermen through the Mississippi nonprofit Asian Americans for Change in the wake of the oil spill. “I don’t think it is.”

Indeed, an emerging body of science indicates that the BP disaster will have long-lasting impacts on the health and safety of the Gulf’s marine life.

A 2012 study by scientists at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C. confirmed that toxic compounds from BP’s spilled oil have entered the marine food chain. The researchers looked specifically at polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), natural components of crude oil that accumulate up the food chain and that are known to cause cancer, reproductive problems and birth defects. They found that PAHs matching the profile of those from BP’s spill were present in zooplankton, small organisms that form the foundation of the aquatic food web.

Larger sea creatures haven’t been spared either. Before the BP disaster, an average of 74 dolphins were stranded along the northern shore of the Gulf of Mexico each year. But from April 2010 through late March of 2012, 523 dolphins were found stranded in the spill-affected area—what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declares an “Unusual Mortality Event.”

There is other evidence that the ocean ecology is still being affected. Clint Guidry, chair of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, reports that shrimpers have been catching live shrimp with no eyes, something they say they didn’t see before the oil disaster. Crabbers report catching crabs with strange lesions.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says a study of Gulf seafood it conducted along with BP, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies found oil contamination below levels that would raise health concerns for consumers. However, there is widespread distrust of the government’s findings, stemming in part from federal agencies’ actions in the immediate aftermath of the BP disaster.

At a press conference held in September 2010, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco declared that Gulf seafood was “free of contamination”—even though data from federal and state agencies showed that was clearly not the case. In fact, tests conducted by the federal government and state agencies found that 24 percent of all Gulf seafood and 43 percent of all Gulf oysters sampled through August 2010 contained PAHs. In addition, the FDA’s determination that the contamination wasn’t enough to threaten health assumed a level of seafood consumption that was far below the average for Gulf residents.

The result is that many fishers don’t trust the safety of their catch. “They’re afraid of the seafood,” says United Houma Nation outreach coordinator Clarice Friloux, who works with many commercial fishermen. “Should they bring it home to their families? Should they have it be sold worldwide?”

The economic dislocations in the wake of the BP disaster have sent shockwaves through a Gulf region still struggling to recover from Katrina and other hurricanes. Many Gulf Coast communities have reported a rise in alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence and mental health issues.

In the Alabama coastal community of Gulf Shores, for example, police reported a 33 percent jump in domestic violence calls in the 10-month period after the spill compared to the 10-month period before the spill. A 2011 study by University of Maryland researchers found that residents of Gulf Coast communities showed clinically significant signs of anxiety and depression in the months following the oil spill.

“The stressors of the hurricane [Katrina], the BP oil spill, the housing bubble bursting, the economic downturn—for the Southeast portion of the United States it seems that we’ve just had one thing after another,” says Teresa Bettis, executive director of the Center for Fair Housing in Mobile, Ala. “The stress of it has caused folk who were fine before to now be faced with mental health issues.”

Following the Deepwater Horizon disaster, BP set up a $20 billion fund to compensate Gulf Coast residents and businesses for losses. The Gulf Coast Claims Facility administered by Obama appointee Kenneth Feinberg to adjudicate claims paid out $6.1 billion to more than 225,000 claimants—less than a quarter of those who sought compensation.

“We see a lot of inequitable treatment of claims,” says Stephen Teague, an attorney with the Mississippi Center for Justice, a nonprofit law firm that has been assisting people with claims. “There are lots of problems that pervade the process.”

Read an interview with Stephen Teague of the Mississippi Center for Justice here.

And now, changes in BP’s compensation process are bringing more uncertainty: The proposed settlement of a class-action lawsuit against the company that was announced in February 2012 would replace the claims facility with a court-supervised claims center. That settlement was moving toward finalization as the disaster’s two-year anniversary approached but must still be approved by the court.

Uncertainty about the future for Gulf Coast economic staples like fishing, energy and tourism has pushed grassroots groups to fill in the gaps—and think big about how to transition to sustainable alternatives.

In Louisiana, the United Houma Nation provides members with financial assistance to help with things like utility bills and medication, and also offers vocational training for those members who want to change occupations.

Asian Americans for Change in Biloxi, Miss. also works to connect the people it serves with financial assistance and education. It has partnered with the Mississippi Department of Employment Security and a local college to establish classes in computers, electrical training and welding to help unemployed fishermen find work on coastal restoration projects.

“The classes are filling up fast,” Nguyen reports.

Also in Mississippi, the nonprofit Coastal Women for Change has begun offering financial literacy classes and is working with community members to work together on addressing their economic hardships.

“We can’t do it separately,” says Executive Director Sharon Hanshaw. “When you’re by yourself and you feel like, ‘I have to get this job for me,’ and you’re not thinking about your neighbor next door, that’s not healthy. So we’re just trying to teach them collaboration and how to partner with your neighbor, partner with local organizations, and to just befriend people.”

Listen to an interview with Sharon Hanshaw of Coastal Women for Change here.

Across the Gulf Coast, groups are calling for new resources, such as fines levied against BP, to be put towards job creation in areas like coastal restoration. Many Gulf organizations had hoped that the federal government’s stimulus program launched in 2009 would help jumpstart such recovery programs. But by the end of 2011, the five Gulf Coast states had received just under $1,455 per capita in stimulus spending, well under the national average of $1,645.

“I see firsthand the effects for local fishermen, restaurant workers and others that have been hit hard by the BP oil disaster,” says James Crowell, president of the NAACP in Biloxi, Miss. “People … share similar stories of spill-induced job shortages, less hours for hourly wage earners, and rough economic times that could be remedied by putting people back to work on restoration projects. Restoration of the Gulf Coast can be an engine for economic recovery.”