By Karen Savage, Bridge the Gulf
"Hey, boss … I don't know if they're here. It don't look real promising," Bob called out to David Arnesen with a heavy sigh.
They were a couple of miles outside of South Pass, off the coast of Louisiana, chasing kingfish on the first day of August, a picture-perfect day. But after nearly two hours on the water, there was only one fish to show for their effort.
Before, they would have pulled in 20 or so in that time. But that was before.
Like many along the coast, fishermen and their families refer to life in a series of befores and afters -- before Katrina and after Katrina, before and after Gustav, and before or after the four or five other major storms that have struck in the last eight years.
And then came BP.
Fisherman on the Gulf Coast long for the days before BP's "well from hell" spewed crude oil for 87 days and before nearly 2 million gallons of toxic dispersant were sprayed into warm Gulf waters that have sustained their families for generations.
Other boats nearby didn't have any better news. A voice over the radio reported he'd pulled in three or four kingfish. Another was leaving the immediate area in search of a better spot.
Arnesen, a commercial fisherman, grew up fishing with his father. He bought his first boat at 17, and holds several different licenses, knowing from experience that if one fish species has an off year, he could always rely on another to get through -- until now.
Last year might have been a warning. It was slow. But they could still go out and make money, come out a little ahead. This year fishermen are struggling just to break even. July was the worst Arnesen has seen and the first July he hasn't done well enough to pay off his bills and put something aside for the off-season.
His best day kingfishing this year was around 600 pounds, with most days averaging around 300 pounds. Before BP, he could pull in 700 to 1,000 pounds on an average day.
It takes about 200 pounds just to pay for fuel. After paying Bob and accounting for wear and tear on the boat, there's not much left to show for a day that began before the sun came up and ended just as it was setting.
Leaving one fishing spot to search for better waters, like the voice on the radio, burns more fuel. Slow days are tough on fuel, tough on the boat, and even tougher on the fishermen themselves. Arnesen said shrimpers who go out on a four-day trip used to trawl only at night. But now it's not unusual to trawl 24 hours a day looking for shrimp.
Although kingfish are migratory and could return next year, many fishermen fear the worst, saying there's little reason for them to return.
"If there's plenty to eat, [kingfish] are going to stay. If not, they'll keep swimming. I think that's what's really hurt us is our bait was devastated, migratory fish aren't going to stay -- they don't have anything to eat," Arnesen said.
King mackerel are also migratory and follow the bait. King mackerel season opened July 1 and fisherman are calling it a "bust," barely catching enough to cover expenses.
Bait balls, or groups of smaller fish, which are natural bait for larger fish, form into a "ball" or sphere in hopes of escaping predators. Plentiful before BP, fishermen now report going for miles with no bait balls in sight.
Migratory fish aren't the only species disappearing.
"Fish that don't migrate, like mangrove snapper and red snappers, that live their entire lives in areas that were oiled, are devastated," Arnesen said.
The amberjack season opens in January and February, and again in June. What fishermen report finding this year is alarming.
"Not only do we have no stock, but they never dropped their roe," Arnesen explained.
(Fish reproduce by spawning, a process in which females drop their eggs -- which are called roe before they're dropped out of their bodies -- in spawning grounds. The eggs are fertilized when the male drops his roe on the eggs. Fish that don't drop their roe aren't reproducing.)
"In January and February, they had roe. This year when we went back in June -- five months later -- they were still full of roe. They usually drop the roe after six to eight weeks. And their body weights are down 25-30 percent."
Oystermen and shrimpers have reported similar reproductive problems.
Arnesen suspects a combination of dispersant and oil is to blame. In the first year of fishing after the disaster, fishermen reported finding fish with oil in their stomachs, which sometimes had seeped through the organs in the stomach cavity, then into the meat and skin.
And the changing coastline is likely affecting spawning grounds. Louisiana is losing land at alarming rates due to sea level rise, oil and gas canals, and coastal erosion.
Arnesen explains that continuous use of dispersants to sink BP's continually resurfacing oil, as well as reliance on it in response to other smaller spills, hasn't helped.
Only a few days ago, they'd come across nothing but sheen from Southwest Pass to Grand Isle. As is often the case, it's impossible to know if the sheen came from BP's resurfacing oil or from another leak. Wells and rigs dot the horizon as far as the eye can see. He suspects that sheen and other oil recently seen was sprayed with dispersants.
"We lost so much land in the last two years, you go down there and you can't even tell where you're at … In some places the land moved almost a mile in the last year. That's crazy. But you can't kill the vegetation and expect it not to erode."
When asked about the BP claims process, Arnesen shook his head, "The whole claims thing is a joke. They did pay out a lot of claims, but not where it needed to be.
"I'm only 46, I'm not going to retire for another 20 years, minimum … If fishing comes back, and I can make my own money, I'm good with them. I don't want BP's check, I'm not a charity case -- I didn't want their check to start with. But they destroyed my industry. What'd they offer me? One check -- OK, that fixed last year. What about this year, next year, 10 years? That's the problem."
And there are other unknowns. Arnesen's wife and daughter have suffered health issues attributed to BP's oil and dispersant use. He's suffered memory loss and worries about the long-term health effects and what the future holds.
"It's real scary with the kids, I mean we're older, if something happens to me, well at least I did live a life. They're 8 and 11."
He urged BP officials early on to evacuate the Venice area, trying to convey to out-of-town contractors how good his community was at evacuating for recent hurricanes.
"We could have had this community evacuated in less than two days -- women, children, the elderly, they all could have been out of harm's way."
But in the summer of 2010, at the height of the disaster, BP refused to acknowledge the oil and dispersant was harmful to human health. Since that time, health effects have been widely documented, particularly in Buras, which is surrounded by water on three sides.
The Arnesens want to move their family away, and have considered North Carolina or Alabama. But North Carolina's fishery doesn't come close to the size of the Gulf's, and living in Alabama, while further away from "ground zero", would still mean fishing in the Gulf.
"So," he said in a quiet voice, "if you're a fisherman, where you gonna go? I'd like to die an old man still being a fisherman. My dad passed at age 93 and he'd been fishing his whole life. Before BP, I thought I'd follow in the same footsteps."
By Karen Savage, Bridge the Gulf