Fishermen Cling To Livelihoods During Spill Recovery

Fishermen Cling To Livelihoods During Spill Recovery
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Louisiana's commercial fishermen are "disaster veterans," trying to hang on, while the local seafood industry struggles to recuperate from BP's oil spill, according to a recent study commissioned by Greater New Orleans, Inc. The state's fisheries will need two to three years to recover, with oyster beds harmed by the entrance of fresh water expected to take the longest.

Last month, development group GNO, Inc. released part one on fisheries in its segmented "Economic Impact of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill." A second section on the oil-drilling moratorium and a third part on the "Louisiana brand" will be issued shortly. The fisheries analysis was funded by a grant of more than $230,000 from the Economic Development Administration of the U.S. Dept. of Commerce, along with money from private sources. Research for the entire study is supported by Chevron -- a participant in the GNO, Inc./Chevron Coastal Vitality Project.

Michael Hecht, GNO, Inc. president and CEO, last week said, "we wanted to produce a meaningful study as soon as possible after the spill, using qualitative and quantitative data, to help find ways to mitigate its impact on communities and businesses." He said a lesson from Katrina was not to let too much time elapse before examining key factors needed to allocate resources in the recovery process.

To conduct the study, GNO, Inc. in May contracted North Carolina-based IEM, Inc., a risk management firm with an office in Baton Rouge that has researched Gulf hurricane impacts. Also contributing to the study were seven local fishermen's associations, coastal and fisheries specialists from state government and Louisiana State University, and environmental and non-profit groups.

Jeremy Stone, an expert on local fisheries and economic activity, did fieldwork and interviewed nearly 75 fishermen in South Louisiana in groups, mainly by ethnicity. Those interviews provide a glimpse into the post-spill trials of oyster men and shrimpers, and from their living rooms, it looks like times will remain tough for awhile.

Robin Barnes, GNO Inc.'s executive vice president, last week said, "some Louisiana fishermen are still working for BP and some may be collecting unemployment, but mostly they want to remain in the fishing business and will wait to see what happens next year before considering any retraining." She is a former Seedco Financial Services, Inc. executive, who in 2008 opened the Southeast Louisiana Fisheries Assistance Center along with Stone.

Meanwhile, the number of fishermen working for BP doing cleanup has subsided since the summer. Todd Beyer, a spokesman at the Deepwater Horizon Unified Area Command in New Orleans -- which includes BP, Transocean Ltd. and government agencies -- said last week that "122 Louisiana vessels are currently under contract in the Vessels of Opportunity program, employing a captain and up to two crew members, so total employment is between 122 and 366 people." That compares with a peak of 2,828 state vessels that were used in the program between late July and early August, he said. "Not all vessels under contract during the peak were necessarily in the water at the same time, however," Beyer noted.

To examine the effect of oil and its cleanup on seafood, the study done for GNO, Inc. assumed that BP's wellhead released 60,000 barrels of crude daily from April 20 to July 16. Because of dispersant use, burning, evaporation and natural dispersion during and after the spill, the maximum concentration of oil in total hydrocarbons that entered Louisiana's estuaries after 100 days of spillage was probably between 10 and 50 parts per billion. That level is unlikely to impact human or marine life, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency risk guidelines, the study said.

However, a continuum of polluted water may still exist between the well and Louisiana's shores that could affect the life cycles of commercial fish species, according to the study. Meanwhile, more information is needed to assess the impact of oil dispersants Corexit 9500 and Corexit 9527 on Gulf seafood.

Of seven, main species in Louisiana's commercial fisheries, shrimp, crab, oysters and menhaden appear to have been considerably harmed by the spill. The study said, "adults of each specie are unlikely to die, but they may suffer non-lethal effects to health and reproduction." Larvae and eggs of white shrimp, crabs and menhaden, in particular, were hurt by oil.

The study projects a downturn in revenues from the state's commercial fisheries, with losses seen at $59 million to $89 million in 2011, $38 million to $56 million in 2012, and $18 million to $27 million in 2013.

"Primary revenue effects for each species will be felt in the first two full years after the oil spill," according to the study. Oyster beds, hurt by a decision to divert fresh water from the Mississippi River to keep oil from the marshes, will take a revenue hit for the first three years. Fishermen interviewed thought that, among species, oysters would suffer the greatest casualties since they are stationary. A number of fishermen predicted that shrimp would recover quickly, however, because of their short reproductive cycle. Other species, they thought, might travel elsewhere and return to Louisiana's coast once the worst is over. Fishermen expressed concern about catching contaminated products and did not want to add to worries about seafood safety.

Between 2011 and 2013, gross losses to Louisiana's economy from fishing revenues forfeited to immediate spill effects could total between $285 million and $428 million, the study predicted. Between 2,700 and 4,000 full-time-equivalent jobs in fishing and related industries could be sacrificed over that period. And those numbers are conservative because the study's estimates do not consider post-spill declines in seafood demand or the event's long-term ecological impacts.

BP payments to fishermen will soften the spill's economic blow, however, the study said. Fishermen invested part of their BP claims checks and Vessels of Opportunity earnings in their businesses and are spending them elsewhere, too. But since BP programs for fishermen were unevenly targeted, their economic benefits will be patchy, the study predicted.

"One impression taken from these meetings is that fishermen are disaster veterans," the study said. "Having persevered through so many disasters, it is difficult for many commercial fishermen to accept the gravity of this one." Fishermen are aware of the possibility of losing their livelihoods but do not believe in that worst-case scenario.

Louisiana's commercial fishermen face substantial barriers to working outside of their industry, the study said. A lack of formal work histories, along with handicaps ranging from education, language, citizenship, health, age and lack of savings and salable assets, could make it tough to either find work or start new businesses. In areas where commercial fishing is no longer viable, boats may be stranded assets with few alternative uses and little market value.

Fishermen worry their skills are not transferable and that they don't have licenses to reflect their abilities as, say, electricians and carpenters. Those interviewed thought their mechanics, welding and boat-captaining skills could be applied in the oil and gas industry, where some of them have worked in the past. Most felt they could operate crew or supply boats for oil rigs. But given today's stiff competition for jobs and the fact that few, new offshore drilling permits have been issued recently, fishermen said they cannot count on oil and gas employment.

Since fishermen have the knowledge, boats and other equipment needed for coastal restoration, they feel they should be considered for such work. In the long term, coastal restoration and green industries could provide the best opportunities for those seeking new careers but wishing to remain on the water, the study said.

Based on interviews, the study recommended that training programs for fishermen be mostly on the job, rather than school based. Fishermen in some communities, however, are interested in taking English as a second language.

In early August, the GNO, Inc./Chevron Coastal Vitality Project or CVP was formed to find ways to modify the spill's impact on the region's workforce and business community. The CVP is financed by Chevron, with additional support from the U.S. Dept. of Commerce's Economic Development Administration, Capital One Bank, and the Louisiana Dept. of Children and Family Services.

CVP assists businesses submitting claims to Kenneth Feinberg's Gulf Coast Claims Facility, and to date has helped over 75 claimants -- mostly small business owners. In late October, the CVP launched a website at that includes GNO, Inc.'s fishery study and information about the GCCF, worker-training programs, jobs, small business resources, parish information and economic forecasts.

Barnes said, "workers, businesses and nonprofits face many unknowns as the region starts to recover, and they need up-to-date information." When asked about a possible conflict between oil giant Chevron helping communities adjust after BP's spill, she said "Chevron as a corporate citizen and employer in Louisiana has taken a leadership role in finding ways to provide assistance to those impacted by the spill."

IEM, which produced the GNO study, was until recently headquartered in Baton Rouge and has done work assessing local hurricanes. In 2004, IEM developed a scenario for Federal Emergency Management Agency on a fictional hurricane called Pam, projecting flooding, displaced residents, damaged structures and other fallout. When Katrina struck in 2005, the storm's path, strength and consequences were almost identical to the Pam scenario, according to IEM's research director Michael Boechler. In 2008, IEM provided economic loss estimates from Hurricanes Gustav and Ike to the Louisiana Economic Development Authority.

In the last decade, Louisiana's coastal communities have faced hardships from Katrina, Rita, Gustav, and Ike, in addition to land losses, deforestation and lower seafood prices, the GNO, Inc. fisheries study said.

Last month, Entergy Corp. and America's WETLAND Foundation released a study predicting that communities along the Gulf Coast could suffer a staggering, $350 billion or more in economic losses over the next 20 years because of coastal shrinking, sinking ground, climate change and other environmental threats.

Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu said last week, after leading her third Congressional delegation to the Netherlands, that "the Gulf has much to learn from the Dutch, who have stopped fighting the water and found solutions to live with it." She is drafting legislation to seek a revenue stream to protect Gulf communities that lie below sea level.

GNO, Inc. plans to release the second segment of its study, focused on the Gulf drilling moratorium, in late November, and a third part on Louisiana's brand at year end. The drilling ban was lifted in October, but the federal government has issued hardly any new drilling permits since then, Michael Hecht said last week.

This article was published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the Nov. 22, 2010 edition.

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