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A Columbus Day Paean to the Fishermen of the Gulf

The media has gone AWOL. Last week at a meeting in Buras, LA, fishermen gathered to talk about ways to show the public the oil is not gone. They felt abandoned and desperate.
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This Columbus Day, there is little rejoicing among the fishermen of the Gulf Coast. Although this fishing-rich region is close to the Cuban shores Columbus first visited 500 years ago, there is not a lot to celebrate these days. The aftermath of the BP oil disaster hangs like a pall over the fishing communities of the Gulf, and people are only certain of one thing; it will get worse before it gets better.

Most Americans are unaware of this. The country remains gripped in unshakable economic doldrums. Millions are hurting and many have lost their homes. But along the Gulf coast, fishermen are even more desperate. Their livelihoods have been destroyed and they have no idea if their culture will return. They see the oil continuing to wash up on their shores while no one seems to be paying attention.

Their future lies in the hands of men like government BP claims czar Ken Feinberg, yet people here have little idea when or if they will receive a check to compensate them for their ruined way of life. Government officials pronounce the fish clean of oil when fishermen themselves say they are seeing oil in some of their catches. Even NOAA representatives have gone into schools to try to convince kids their seafood is safe when some fishermen refuse to feed seafood to their families.

The media has gone AWOL. Last week at a meeting in Buras, LA, fishermen gathered to talk about ways to show the public the oil is not gone. They felt abandoned and desperate. Some have had to accept free groceries and school supplies because they have run out of money to feed their families or buy gas for their trucks. They are incensed by million dollar ad campaigns aired during Saints games touting how BP “will make it right.”

They know what’s coming. The cleanup boats are being pulled off the job and their only income will be handouts from government and charities. And those sources are drying up too.

“It’s time to standup,” local shrimper Darla Rooks told the assembly of fishermen in this fishing town still devastated by Katrina. “This is my land and I cannot let me children fish here anymore. We need to stand up and fight or there will be nothing left. If you say nothing, you get nothing.”

Fishermen in this community agreed, but there’s still great uncertainty about what they can do. Even as the meeting took place, reports came in over cell phones to fishermen whose friends still working for BP describing thick peanut butter oil slicks coming into Barataria Bay, one of the hardest hit areas of the Gulf. It comes in at night and sinks during the day, they say.

“People out there don’t have a clue what’s going on,” says Acy Cooper, an official with the Louisiana Shrimp Association. No one wants to buy our shrimp. We can’t say for certain it’s safe while there’s still oil coming in here.”

Meanwhile, the lawyers are circling. As the government claims process grinds on, fishermen and business owners along the coast will be put in the position of trying to decide between accepting whatever the government gives them or getting a lawyer to represent them, a process that could take years -- perhaps decades.

Mike Brewer, an oil cleanup expert who ran for a local council seat here, says a fisherman friend from Alaska just received a check from the Exxon Valdez disaster, more than 25 years after the fact. “It wasn’t even worth the money for him to fly to Alaska to get it,” Brewer says.

So as the six-month anniversary of the oil blowout approaches next week, I can vouch for the fishermen of the Gulf coast. I have been here with them since early May, following their various stages of shock, anger and grief over what has happened to their livelihoods. I have watched proud fishing families struggle with a seemingly unassailable foe, an army of oil, powerful PR and an aura of government complicity that exacerbates this ongoing disaster.

If history is any lesson, this culture and these people will not be easily defeated. They have a lot of fight left in them to survive. But it’s important for all Americans who celebrate Columbus’ discovery of the America’s to know that a culture that lived here before the Europeans is in danger of extinction. The tribe of the United Houma Nation still live by these waters where they have fished for centuries, as do the Italians, French and African Americans who came later and fish them now. For them and for all of us, we need to preserve the culture and environment Columbus found when he first sailed into our world. We need to restore the Gulf coast and make sure this oil disaster never happens again.