Oil and water create an uncertain future in the Southern wild

By Rocky Kistner, Bridge the Gulf

Cajun fishing and hunting guide Ryan Lambert has weathered his share of storms over the years. He rebuilt his house and lodge deep in the Louisiana bayou seven years ago after Katrina rampaged across the area like a wild boar through roseau cane. Two years later, he struggled to rebuild his fishing business decimated by the BP oil spill -- a business that today still reels from a lack of trophy-sized speckled trout famous to fishermen all over the country.

Now, Hurricane Isaac has paid a visit, delivering yet another blow to Lambert's water-soaked lodge and teetering fishing operation in Plaquemines Parish. Lambert is engaged in a protracted legal battle with BP over compensation for his business loss, and he has little regard for the $7.8 billion settlement plan that the British oil giant has offered up to tens of thousands of Gulf residents and businesses damaged by the massive spill. "The settlement won't do us any good if there aren't any fish," Lambert says.

Since the storm hit, slicks of weathered tar mats and tar balls have emerged and washed ashore along the beaches and bayous of the Gulf -- some of it linked to BP's oil from the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon explosion, forcing the closure of a 12-mile section of Louisiana coastline. Locals say the 180 million gallons of crude BP spewed into the Gulf is having a lasting impact on their treasured fishing grounds, fisheries some believe may never be the same. Over the past two years, shrimpers, oystermen and crabbers have all reported lower catches across the region, especially in ecologically sensitive areas like Louisiana's Barataria Bay that serve as the important nurseries for much of the seafood from the Gulf. 

"There ought to be a smorgasbord of fish out here, we're talking about the best fishing in the world," Lambert says. "The year before they said it was because the fresh water was too high, now they say it’s because the river is too low. But it keeps getting worse and worse."

Shrimpers in the area agree. The brown shrimp season ended earlier this summer and was disappointing to many. Even though the final numbers aren't in, Louisiana Shrimp Association President Clint Guidry told ABC News that shrimp landings are off 50% this year, calling it "huge."

Just ask Dean Blanchard of the oil-soaked beach community of Grand Isle, which bore the brunt of Isaac and had its beaches littered with tar balls, dead pelicans and even a dead pigmy sperm whale. But what's most disturbing to Blanchard is that the bounty of the sea that once supported the biggest shrimp buying business on the Gulf coast is now just a memory, perhaps permanently damaged he says by the tidal wave of BP oil that poured into his fishing grounds 40 miles offshore.

Blanchard says the brown and white shrimp catch this year is just 15 percent of normal, and he expects it will get worse, not better. "BP created a black top of oil out there and it's created a dead zone that's getting wider. The shrimp around here are starving; they're not growing or producing babies. The estuaries where they reproduce are all screwed up…normally after every storm the fishing is great. Now it's still terrible."

Blanchard and other fishermen say despite BP's slick TV commercials, the signs are not good the fisheries will recover soon. Everyone is worried the toxic effects of the oil will continue to work its way through the food chain. Scientists are slowly putting together pieces of the puzzle, from studies documenting BP oil impacts on sick Gulf dolphins to microscopic organisms. But such research will take years to determine just exactly how devastating and long-lasting this oil disaster will be on marine life.

Meanwhile, the fight over damages looms large as lawyers for BP and federal and state governments prepare for one of the biggest legal brawls in history. A federal government motion filed at the end of August set the stage for this epic courtroom battle when Justice Department lawyers fired a legal volley across BP’s bow, accusing the oil giant of dodging gross negligence and willful misconduct charges in the deadly Deepwater Horizon explosion.

As a Times-Picayune editorial points out, the Justice Department's motion includes damaging internal BP emails from company officials warning of problems with the well that were put off by one executive rushing off to dance to the Village People. Three days later the Deepwater Horizon blew up, the Times-Picayune reported:

The government called the email exchange, "only the merest tip of the culture of corporate recklessness that pervaded management and operation of the Macondo well." In a statement, BP said it "believes it was not grossly negligent and looks forward to presenting evidence on this issue at trial in January." If BP and the government can't agree on the company's gross negligence, that's a matter to be resolved at trial, not in hearings over BP's settlement with private parties. That's why the Justice Department's warning is not only appropriate, but welcome.

As the legal battles drag on, the people of the bayou continue to live in a culture endangered by man-made hazards that appear larger than life. In this summer’s magical hit indie movie "Beasts of the Southern Wild," a band of Cajun outcasts threatened by a rising tide of melting glaciers and violent storms lash back at civilization by trying to blow up a levee they see as a danger to their waterborne lifestyle. There are many in the real world who seem to battle these same elements every day, hoping and praying the next storm -- or the next oil spill -- doesn't put them out of business for good. The  extreme weather and rising seas spurred on by climate change isn't helping people's struggle in the bayou, but that doesn't mean they are giving up.

"We're just taking it day to day," veteran shrimper Acy Cooper, the subject of a recent New York Times article, told me by phone as he struggled to rebuild his shrimping business knocked out by Isaac and hit hard by the BP oil spill. "But that’s just the way we live."

(Photo of oily tar found after Hurricane Isaac hit Grand Isle, La. by Mac MacKenzie via Bridge the Gulf.)