No Shrimping in Forrest Gump's Bayou La Batre

In the 1994 movie Forrest Gump, Forrest headed to Bayou La Batre (pronounced Balla Batree), Alabama to fulfill the dream of his dead friend and fellow soldier, "Bubba" Blue, who yearned to return home to become a shrimper. Now Bayou La Batre, nestled in protected waters adjacent to the mighty Gulf of Mexico and the tranquil Mobile Bay, is threatened by oil that is gushing into the Gulf, polluting thousands of square miles of habitat, and threatening fragile estuaries.

On Sunday, federal authorities announced a 10-day fishing ban in federal waters most affected by the BP spill between the mouth of the Mississippi River and the waters of Florida's Pensacola Bay. This is coming right before the peak shrimp season in June, which has Bayou La Batre's residents gravely concerned.

As a Newark, Delaware based regional economist and former financial analyst for the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta responsible for monitoring hurricane Katrina-affected areas, I worry for my family living on the bayous. Coastal communities understand the tradeoffs associated with offshore drilling more acutely than anywhere else. Such tradeoffs are no less visible and concrete than rigs in Mobile Bay.
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Yet when it comes to bearing the risks of industrial activity, often those least capable of bearing risk are forced to bear most of it because they have less economic or political bargaining power. This is the situation now faced by Alabama's tourism and seafood industries. They benefit as much as anybody from oil production, but they are the only ones who risk losing their livelihoods when spills occur. It's a raw deal.

When Bubba's mother cast her piercing eyes upon Forrest from her porch, she crossed her arms and sharply inquired, "Are you stupid or somethin'?" This is a legitimate question to ask hard working shrimpers, oystermen, and fishermen who belong to the area's 829-member Organized Seafood Association of Alabama. They dealt with a long shut-in of Gulf waters after hurricanes Rita and Katrina in 2005. Katrina's winds and tidal surge flooded and ripped apart homes, food processing plants, churches, schools, and libraries.

Yet Bayou La Batre -- a village with a diverse population of 2,400 Asians, whites, blacks, native Americans, Latinos, Cajuns, and Creoles -- is closely knit as evidenced by the work of U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, a native of Bayou La Batre who won a MacArthur 'genius award' for practicing medicine in the rural health clinic that she founded in 1990 and heroically rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina.

Hard labor has created little material wealth. According to the 2000 Census, the median household income was $25,000; the median home price was $46,000, the poverty rate was double the national average; and the share of the population with a bachelor's degree or higher was one third the national rate.

Although considered poor by many measures, the bayou pulled together after Katrina and thought the worst had past until now. The fact of the matter is that hurricanes are a fact of life on the coast, and people have learned to adapt by constructing facilities in protected bayous. But man-made disasters such as oil slicks represent an entirely different type of risk in terms of severity, duration, and uncertainty.

Hurricanes disrupt seafood production, but Mother Nature has always replenished the harvest. In contrast, there is no telling what will happen to fish, seafood, and critters when they are coated by crude and chemicals. Dead sea turtles, sharks, and jellyfish washing ashore are ominous signs.

The fish and seafood industries are crucial not only to the bayou economy, but also to the regional economy and the national palate. More than two-thirds of the nation's oyster supply originates from the Gulf. According to the Fisheries Division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the dockside value of fish and seafood caught just in Alabama waters during 2007 amounted to $40.7 million for shrimp, $1 million for mullet; and $2.7 million for oysters. Harvests of these three products alone equaled 23.7 million pounds.

In 2008, the total dockside value of 1.3 billion pounds of seafood and fish landed in U.S. ports along the Gulf equaled $661 million. Thousands of food processors, wholesalers, transporters, and restaurateurs rely on the Gulf catch. Although highly fragmented, this industry is no small fish.

Right now, Alabama and the rest of the Gulf Coast need to brace for the worst. Long-term, I believe the coastal communities should be compensated with a "trust fund" or "development fund" as part of any new offshore drilling deals. Those whose communities and livelihoods are threatened by offshore drilling should not be hung out to dry.

What is the value of preserving the bayous, rivers, bays and Gulf beaches that cast seafood into our plates, plow sales tax revenues into state treasuries, and replenish and define our cultural heritage for successive generations? Most would say these are priceless.