BOOTHVILLE, La. -- Fishermen who live on the spit of silt called the Mississippi River Delta are watching helplessly as oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico threatens their livelihood.
The 25,000 residents of Plaquemines Parish are all too familiar with catastrophe. They were hit hard by Hurricane Katrina five years ago, and now this: Oil unleashed from an uncapped wellhead by the explosion and sinking of rig nearly two weeks ago is heading their way.
At risk is the heart of the U.S. seafood industry.
"These estuaries are the richest in the country -- shrimp, oysters, crabs," said Ryan Lambert, a director of the Louisiana Charter Boat Association and owner of Cajun Fishing Adventures. "In the long term, as the oil comes in and shuts the fishery down ... it's going to wipe all that out."
Louisiana's coastal wetlands support a $2.4 billion fishing industry by providing breeding areas and nurseries for fish, crabs and shrimp. They also set the table for migrating waterfowl and other birds. The spill is likely to affect this and the next generation of wildlife because it is spawning season, and oil kills fish larvae. It is being seen as an ecological disaster.
It is an economic catastrophe, too. Shrimpers have been waiting through the long months of one of the toughest winters on record for their harvest to begin this month. In the past few weeks, they have been pouring money into boats and equipment for a season that usually starts in mid-May and lasts through summer.
"We save money all year to make it through the winter," said Kip Marquize, a Delta shrimper for two decades. "Right before the season, we take the money we've saved and sink it into our equipment. This disaster, it couldn't have come at a worse time."
If the ecological consequences are as bad as the fishermen fear, they say it could deliver a death blow to their struggling industry.
Katrina in August 2005 inundated homes, boats and equipment here and displaced thousands of people for months. Signs of that disaster are still visible along the highway between New Orleans and the mouth of the Mississippi River, the only land passage from the fishing communities of Boothville, Venice, Empire and Buras. Between newly built and renovated buildings stand shells of homes and grocery stores. Along the highway, a refrigerator -- with the magnets still stuck to it -- hangs from a tree.
There are signs of recovery, such as the new community center being built here. But for people whose livelihoods depend on fishing -- 90 percent of the community, according to some estimates -- the future is grim.
"We just came out of a bad winter, it's freezing cold, and we put everything in our boats and hope for the best," said Waylon Buras, a commercial fisherman. "Everybody has high hopes for the season, and then boom, oil spill."
The recession has not helped, either. The cost of diesel fuel has risen, while the price of shrimp has plummeted.
"In my opinion, [the shrimpers] are done," Lambert said. "Their industry has already plummeted. Diesel's at $4 a gallon. They're selling shrimp for nothing. They're already hanging on by a thread, and now this."
If the oil spill shuts down the fishing industry in southern Louisiana, fishermen say there is little else for them to do.
"We've been fishermen here for 20 or 30 years, some longer. We don't have any other qualifications," Marquize said. "And even if we did, the opportunities for jobs aren't even out there. We know boats. We know the water. How do you start over?
"When this pulls out, we're going to be left with a crippled industry and no way to recover."
But the fishermen are not going down without a fight. More than 1,000 streamed into a humid high school gymnasium here over the weekend for information and safety training so they could contract their boats out to BP PLC, the oil company that leased the capsized rig, to help deploy booms, prepare beaches for cleanup, and shuttle equipment and personnel for the response effort.
"By participating today, they'll leave with a certificate to verify their training so they can get involved in the beginning stages of the cleanup," said Ayana McIntosh-Lee, a BP spokeswoman. But she said she was uncertain how many fishermen her company would hire for spill response.
Contractors hired by BP began holding safety training classes for boat owners Friday.
"These guys are protecting their livelihood, their families," said Larry Hooper, a charter boat captain and self-described "damn Yankee" who has lived in Empire for the past seven years. "They may not have educations, but they're willing to work and make a decent living using what God gave them."
A man with a thick Cajun accent explained to a sea of weather-worn faces the effects of benzene on humans and animals. Then his statements were translated into Vietnamese. The southern tip of Louisiana is diverse, with large Vietnamese, Cambodian and Croatian communities. But the fishermen do have a uniform: T-shirts and caps supporting logos of the Louisiana State University Tigers and New Orleans Saints and camouflage and white rubber boots.
The fishermen and boat captains crowded onto narrow bleachers and rows of folding chairs Friday in the gym of the Boothville-Venice School "Oilers" and listened as Vince Mitchell of O'Brien's Response Management, hired by BP to run its vessel opportunity program, explained a payment and fuel-reimbursement plan. Boats larger than 45 feet will earn $2,000 a day, he said, while those between 30 and 45 feet will earn $1,500 a day and those smaller than 30 feet will earn $1,200 a day.
"This is not a guarantee of work, but you're not going to work without this," Mitchell told the boat owners.
Many were skeptical about signing papers that Mitchell and BP offered at the end of the program, saying they were afraid of not grasping all the nuances of the contract language.
"I'm not signing no contract," said Donald Cheramie, a commercial fisherman who has lived in Venice all his life.
Another fisherman, who would not share his name, said he was not signing the contract because he did not want to be shut out of potential future claims for loss of livelihood.
But others, like Buras, Marquize and Hooper, signed.
"These chemicals are toxic, and we're not thrilled to go out there with it, but we may not have a choice," Marquize said. "This is nasty-looking stuff. I don't want to mess up my boat -- I just painted it. The last thing I want to do is to tear my equipment up."
But, he added, "Who else knows these wetlands better than us?"
Hooper said, simply: "I gotta pay the bills somehow."
But weather conditions and red tape so far have kept BP from putting boats from Venice in the water.
Daren Beaudo, a BP spokesman, said the company had accepted contracts with about 500 people from the Gulf Coast; BP plans to hire more in the next few days. Among those hired so far, Lambert said, are about 120 shrimpers from the delta.
Meanwhile, the slick has spread to 3,500 square miles, and an estimated 200,000 gallons is leaking into the Gulf of Mexico daily.
Federal officials closed recreational and commercial fishing across a large swath of the Gulf yesterday for a minimum of 10 days.
"I heard the concerns of the Plaquemines Parish fishermen as well as other fishermen and state fishery managers about potential economic impacts of a closure," said Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in a statement. "Balancing economic and health concerns, this order closes just those areas that are affected by oil."
Fishing for croaker, catfish and blue crab yesterday from the Chester M. McPhearson Jr. Pier in Ocean Springs, Miss., Patrick Gunter said he was trying to take advantage of the fishing spot before the oil slick moves in. NOAA has not yet closed fishing along the immediate coastlines of Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama or Florida.
"We know it will be a long time before we get out here again," the carpenter and Ocean Springs native said.
"We just wanted to get out here and have some fun while we can," Gunter said as he pulled a catfish off his line.
Oil and fishing, side by side
Despite the gloom around the marinas and harbors of the delta, the community has not written off the oil industry.
"My perception of the industry won't change because of this," Lambert said. "The oil industry is a viable thing. They've had a catastrophe, and they learned from it."
While the local economy is heavily reliant on fishing, oil is also an important economic driver.
"We're an oil-field and fishing community," Marquize said. "We're the southern Alaska."
Venice is a jumping-off point for many workers on offshore oil and gas rigs and platforms. Several helicopter and boat shuttle services operate from the region. And each day, thousands of gallons of crude oil and millions of cubic feet of natural gas are pumped through pipelines that run under the wetlands to refineries and larger gas lines further upriver.
"Being that so much of our economy is oil, we love it. We fish the oil rigs, and we've never had any real trouble -- once a year maybe," Lambert said. "I have no ill feelings toward BP. They don't want to see their oil spilling. They're trying to close it up as fast as they can."
That said, Lambert knows his business is in trouble -- at least for the near term. Before the recession hit, he was running 600 charters a month. During the recession, that rate dropped to 400. Now, he has got cancellations until August.
"This has hurt me very bad," Lambert said. "Mother Nature will come back, but how long will it take? And what will be left in the water when we get back? That's my concern."