By Adam Peck
|To the average person, a massive oil spill into the most abundant and fruitful resource of seafood in the nation would likely end whatever relationship may have previously existed between a demanding oil industry and a fickle fishing industry.
To Matt O’Brien, a resident of Venice, Louisiana who was just opening a new fishing dock as the BP spill began, it was just another blip in a series of hardships that shrimpers like himself face.
“It is what it is,” he sighed when asked about the impact the spill has had on his fledgling business. “This is Venice, there’s always oil in the water here.”
He was right on so many levels. As important as the fishing industry is to the Louisiana economy (the state provides 70% of the gulf’s seafood, and gulf seafood supplies almost a third of the nation’s seafood consumption), the oil industry is equally important. Two industries that should logically find themselves at odds on just about everything coexist, intermingle or at least tolerate one another. Just ask cleanup crews in the gulf: it’s hard to remove oil from water.
In the weeks following the initial disaster aboard the Transocean rig Deepwater Horizons, British Petroleum faced nonstop criticism, first for allowing such a disaster to happen, then for failing to stop the gushing oil. In congress and the media, Tony Hayward and other BP officials were skewered. But at the local level, legislators that truly represent the people most affected by the spill have taken a far more conciliatory approach.
“We’ve always had a kind of love hate relationship with the oil companies,” explained Byron Marinovich, the councilman for District 8 in Plaquemines Parish. “A lot of these guys actually shrimp and fish part of the year and then go work on the platforms.”
Marinovich himself has ties to the oil industry. He worked for Chevron for 17 years earlier in his career, one of the nation’s largest oil companies that has massive facilities located in Venice.
His is not an uncommon story, however. Almost everyone we spoke with who works in the fishing or shrimp industry has spent some time employed by one of the local oil companies. Some even split their time between commercial fishing and working on a platform in the gulf.
“It’s as much a oil town as it is a fishing town,” said O’Brien. “I’ve worked in the oil industry, everybody I know has worked in both. So we understand the oil field, unlike some other parts of the country.”
Presumably, that includes Washington, D.C. When President Obama announced a moratorium on deep water drilling in the gulf, a move generally applauded by those concerned with the environment or just angry with BP, residents in Louisiana suffered doubly. At a town hall meeting with Ken Feinberg, the man in charge of BP’s $20 billion recovery fund, attendees retold their stories of being laid off from their desk jobs at an oil company because business grinded to a halt as a result of the moratorium. So the fishing industry that employed half the residents was devastated and the oil industry that employed the other half was weakened.
“We make a living fishing…we make a living with the oil field,” said David Camardelle, the mayor of Grand Isle. His island was hit hardest by the spill, and oil washed ashore and coated their coasts for weeks.
But like Councilman Marinovich, Camardelle was quick to find a happy middle. “We’re like brothers and sisters,” he said of the two industries. “When the shrimp ain’t running you go work for the oil field.”
The relationship between the two industries is curious to outsiders looking in, and it’s not without detractors who see it as unsustainable and doomed to ultimately collapse.
“In the short term, the oil and the fishing are compatible,” said Carl Safina, author and President of the environmental organization Blue Ocean Institute. “But long term, the oil and gas extraction is causing the erosion of the wetlands that make this place an extraordinary producer of shrimp and fish.”
Extraction at the rate that oil companies are currently operating is expediting the decline of two industries. Oil and gas will soon be completely depleted, and the wetlands that define Louisiana are already vanishing at a rate of about a football field every 38 minutes, according to the Sierra Club.
Moderation, it turns out, is key.
“If Louisiana is moderate in what it does with oil and gas, it’s a win win,” explains Tulane University Law Professor Oliver Houck. “They would have oil and gas for a much longer period of time…and they also would have a sustainable resource to turn to when the oil is finally gone.”
In the meantime, two industries are seesawing back and forth, trying to find an equilibrium that allows them to both function at a capacity that is best for the residents of Louisiana.
“It’s a hell of a balancing act, it’s like walking on eggshells sometimes,” said Dave Cvitanovich, an oysterman in Venice. “At the same time, you’ve got to live with one another. It’s just like a marriage.”
|Matt O’Brien, a shrimper from Venice, La.|