The oysters lie in the water like silent harbingers of the disaster. A shiny film of oil washes over the shells. The broth swashes over the flat oyster bed that belongs to Floyd Lasseigne.
Using a small axe the fisherman extracts a few oysters from the ground and carefully pries them open. Slippery white oyster flesh slides out. Lasseigne bends down and holds his nose closely to the sea creature. “You can smell the oil in them,” the sturdy man says and hands the oyster over. Then he looks away, his eyes red from many sleepless nights, and looks over to the marsh grass, the stalks smudged with oil up to the tideline. “It makes me sick,” Lasseigne says. “This is my livelihood and now I see it going down the drain.”
By late afternoon the fisherman leaves to visit his oyster beds on Madacant Island. He travels over Bayou Rigaud in his flat boat with its two outboard motors, going by the docks of Grand Isle as he has done almost every day for the past 27 years. Out there on Barataria Bay he has seen how his fellow fishermen’s cutters that are trying to siphon off the oil for BP.
“Vessels of Opportunity” is what the oil giant has dubbed the program, as if this was about a once-in-a-lifetime chance. BP is paying the fishermen good money. However, four of them have already had to go to the hospital after coming in contact with the chemicals used to bind the oil. Lasseigne didn’t sign up to work for BP. “I’m losing my livelihood, but I am not going to loose my life while working on the oil,” he says.
The 46-year-old has a round face, strong calm hands and the chest of a wrestler. He is a man who seems to be at one with his life on the coast, with work that is dictated by the rhythm of the tides and the seasons. His father lived this way, as did his grandfather and his great-grandfather before him. Like many here he has been fishing since before he can remember. The sea is all he has.
Yet since the Deepwater Horizon exploded 40 miles out into the ocean on April 20, everything has changed on Grand Isle, on Louisiana’s coast. The island, an hour by boat west of the Mississippi Delta, marks the frontline in the fight against the oil.
Thick lumps of brown-red oil stick to the beaches, behind the island it oozes into the salt marshes. The feathers of pelicans, herons and loons are stuck together by the oil. Toxic, stinking plumes waft from the sea across the narrow island. This patch of earth is frequently shaken by hurricanes but it has never experienced a catastrophe like this.
BP Tries to Contain the Anger
“This is way worse than Hurricane Katrina,” says Mayor David Carmadelle. “You can get over a hurricane in a few months, you have to provide electricity and drinking water; but this is different; this can take years: I am not sure if the fishermen will make it at all.” Carmadelle is sitting at a dark veneer wood desk in his office in Grande Isle’s town hall. He hurriedly answers the questions while the telephone rings ceaselessly. US President Barack Obama was due to arrive on the island the next day. And Carmardelle, who has been elected seven times, wanted to say clearly to the president what is at stake. The previous evening he had dined with some experts who had travelled from Alaska to discuss what happened during the Exxon Valdez oil disaster. Now Carmadelle know how tough the fight for his islands could be.
All over Grand Isle home-made posters line the streets. “BP, you ruined our futures and our heritage.” “BP, you are killing our wildlife and eco-systems.” The oil company is attempting to contain this anger. It has set up an information center at the Grand Isle Community Center, barely a stone’s throw from the oil-polluted beach. People arriving to make a compensation claim here leave quickly with a check, from $2,500 (€2,020) for deckhands to $5,000 (€4,040) for captains.
“Partial settlement” is written on the check, a kind of advance payment for loss of income. Floyd Lasseigne has already walked across the linoleum flooring to the BP people and felt like someone who had been forced to beg. He can only laugh bitterly. He says that the BP money will all be used for the insurance payments for his house and car, which are now due. No one has told him if and when he is going to get any more compensation. “Why don’t they give me money for five years and then we go from there?” he wonders.
‘We’ll Have the Last Crab Meat Tonight’
Lasseigne lives with his family in a typical wooden house on stilts directly on the docks. He and his wife Julie are used to disasters. Hurricane Katrina almost completely destroyed the house and the family camped for months in the one bedroom that had escaped damage. “We were just back on our feet,” the fisherman says. Then the oil came. The fishing grounds have been closed for days and Lasseigne can only sit in his living room and follow the daily flow of bad news on the TV. The idleness is demoralizing. That morning he took the last dozen remaining blue crabs from the baskets that sit in the sea water beneath the house. “We will have the last crab meat tonight,” he announced.
The Lasseignes used to place crab baskets in the flat marshes, they had a fresh yield of oysters every year and they fished for shrimp. The Braty Princess is moored directly in front of their house on the pier, the “moving princess” as their 14-year-old daughter describes the boat. The belly of the 12-meter (39 foot) cutter contains a robust PS Cummins engine, the fisherman’s pride and joy. The family could catch up to 3,000 pounds of shrimp a day with the boat. And they sold most of the catch right in front of their house.
They got by — making between $50,000 and $80,000 a year. And now? Julie, who is 43, only knows the sea. Her husband is the same. He left school after junior high and at the age of 18 took out a loan of $25,000 to buy his first boat. Shortly after that he married Julie who was only 16 at the time. He can’t write and only reads with difficulty. “This is the only chance I have,” he says. The only? “The oil industry,” he admits, “I could work in an oil field.”
Where Oil and Fish Are Connected
That is the conflict on this stretch of land, this tangle of waterways, salt marshes, beaches and sea. Barely 10 kilometers as the crow flies from Lasseigne’s house is Port Fourchon, the most important oil port in the entire Gulf Coast — a boomtown ever since deep-sea drilling took off. This is where the steel cap was produced which was supposed to stop the oil flow out there in the gulf. Hundreds of boats are based here, indispensable for the maintenance and supply of the oil platforms. Further inland there are rows of oil refineries and oil tanks.
The oil and fishing industries have mingled here for decades. And most families live from both oil and fish. Lasseigne’s eldest son Blake, who is 24, works as a crane operator in Port Fourchon. His brother, 22-year-old Trent, has had his own cutter for years. Everything is connected and very few locals have dared to say aloud what they really think. However, they are slowly losing patience.
Dean Blanchard is not one to mince words. He is a fifth generation “shrimp broker” and one of the biggest in the US. The 51-year-old has 1,400 fishermen under contract and sells 400,000 pounds of shrimp a day, resulting in an annual turnover of $60 million.
Blanchard drives a black-coated hummer to work and likes to make racist jokes. His office, situated directly on Grand Isle’s main quay, is a unique homage in purple and gold to the LSU Tigers, the Louisiana State University football team. The bronzed businessman with the buzz-cut isn’t someone who usually shows his emotions. Yet here he is sitting on the leather chair in his office showing a video of a TV interview he gave a few days previously. In the video he tearfully describes how his homeland is sinking in oil.
‘What Should I do? Shoot Myself?’
“I had to let 65 workers go,” he says. And the remaining 20 will probably be sent home in a few days. They had been expecting one of the best seasons in years. The winter was cold and the conditions were favorable. His gaze wanders to the bayou right in front of his office window. I know what is going to happen soon, this look says. He admits he didn’t understand for a while how serious things were. “In a week’s time all of this is gonna be red all over.” Blanchard hesitates and then says: “I don’t think I will live long enough to see this coming back to what it was.”
Things won’t be so bad for Blanchard. He may have lost something priceless but he is also going to make a deal worth millions with BP, which will allow him to start all over. But what about fishermen like Lasseigne?
There is enough money for the next three or four months, Lasseigne says on the way back from his oyster beds. This is his little world out here. He doesn’t know anything else. “I have to keep my good spirits,” he says, “what should I do? Shoot myself?”
As the fisherman berths his wife approaches the boat. Will they sue BP? “We don’t believe in suing,” Julie says. “We are Catholics. The Lord will show us the way.”