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Still suffering after BP oil spill, fishermen fear extinction

By Jesse Muhammad -Staff Writer- | Last updated: Jun 21, 2012 - 2:11:02 PM

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Images from Louisiana Oysterman Association website.
'This is the first time in generations we have had our waters taken from us. Our businesses and community has collapsed. There are no oysters on the east bank, which was considered a rich fishing ground. The oyster industry is no more.'
—Byron Encalade, president of the Louisiana Oysterman Association and the South Plaquemines United Fisheries Cooperative

( - Gary Barthelemy says he may never recover from the catastrophic BP oil spill, has zero cash flow and the total demise of a once successful industry is nigh.

“I may just have to retire. Since the BP oil spill, we haven’t had anything to fish because all of the reefs are dead. In all of my years I’ve never seen the waters this dead like I have in the last two years,” Mr. Barthelemy, 66, told The Final Call.

He says a normal season would produce millions of oysters for them to fish over a 3-4 year span. They would then be able to sell them to dealers on the dock.

“Our community has lived off of the water and now our community is dead. We have no cash flow. But it’s not just Black fishermen. Everyone is suffering. BP made promise after promise and has not followed through,” said Mr. Barthelemy, who served as president of Fisherman and Concerned Citizens group. He has been an oyster fisherman for 45 years.

“This is the first time in generations we have had our waters taken from us. Our businesses and community has collapsed. There are no oysters on the east bank, which was considered a rich fishing ground. The oyster industry is no more,” oyster fisherman Byron Encalade told The Final Call.

Mr. Encalade is president of the Louisiana Oysterman Association and the South Plaquemines United Fisheries Cooperative. Their town, Pointe A’La Hache, is a small predominately Black fishing village in Plaquemines Parish.

In the past, the fishermen of Pointe A’La Hache have been very self-sufficient in generating income for their families. Today is not the case.

“This is a fishing community and it is devastated as a whole. These families come from generations of self-reliant fishermen before the BP oil spill. But now they are depending on donations from charities like Feed the Children and Salvation Army,” Reverend August Piquet, who heads St. Joseph Baptist Church, told The Final Call.

Byron Encalade
“Many of them are going through counseling due to extreme stress. Their bills keep stacking up and there is no work. Our church is helping however we can to get them assistance,” said Rev. Piquet.

“During peak season I would be making thousands of dollars a day. Now the last two years I’ve been draining my savings account. Others are living off of meager social security checks. Some don’t have any income at all,” said Mr. Encalade.

Pointe A’La Hache had been a major factor in making Louisiana the top provider of shrimp, oysters, crab and crawfish in the U.S. The industry reportedly brings billions of dollars annually to the state’s economy.

“Some of us have now been reduced to being fishing guides instead of being businessmen. BP hurt us bad and I believe it is only going to get worse,” said Adren Bailey, 57, a third generation oyster fisherman.

A spiraling environmental crisis persists

BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded on April 20, 2010; killing 11 workers and injuring 17 others. The spill spewed 200 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf and is considered the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history.

“The BP disaster taught us many things. Namely, that giant corporations cannot be trusted to behave responsibly absent strong public oversight,” said Robert Weissman in a statement.

Mr. Weissman is president of Public Citizen, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. The past two years they have organized rallies and boycotts against the oil tycoon while demanding stronger federal regulations on offshore drilling.

Oil Cleanup Crew, Elmer Island, Louisiana, June 7, 2010. Photo: MGNOnline
“Congress and the Obama administration have refused to learn the lessons from the BP disaster. Exhaustive investigations showed that existing regulations are inadequate to prevent another offshore catastrophe,” added Mr. Weissman. “Not only are we lacking strong drilling regulations, but we are handing out new leases to BP. We need tough penalties to punish corporate wrongdoers.”

The leak was largely stopped by capping the gushing oil wellhead but many complained early on that BP was dangerously allowed to carpet bomb the ocean excessively with chemical dispersants to clean up oil. They foresaw this having a long-term effect.

According to a June 2012 study from the Public Library of Science, a dramatic biological and ecological shift, not visible with the naked eye, has taken place in post-spill areas. Researchers found that species of fungi are now dominating shorelines.

“I can’t say it is due directly to what BP sprayed in the waters, but I do know we have never had two years straight without young oyster roots growing,” said Mr. Barthelemy.

This is totally in contrast to television commercials by BP that attempt to paint a picture of beautiful beaches and economic revitalization taking place in the Gulf.

“Our culture was that we ate from the water. We fished and fed our families, but we can’t now because it is a risk to our health. I see dirty shrimp gills. Who wants to eat that?” asked Mr. Bailey.

A legal battle on the horizon

In August 2010, BP established a $20 billion claims fund to satisfy legitimate claims from Gulf Coast residents ill-affected by the spill. The funds were distributed through the Gulf Coast Claims Facility ran by Kenneth Feinberg until March of this year.

The facility reportedly paid over 200,000 claimants a total of $6 billion, but faced heavy scrutiny for rejecting claims and processing them at a slothful pace.

Mr. Encalade says he had all of the request documents when he filed a claim two years ago—including income tax records and receipts.

“They promised I would see something in 90 days but I haven’t seen it yet. I hired an attorney because the process has been too complicated. It is necessary to have legal advice in dealing with them. We’re tired of being the ones who suffer the most and get the least,” he said.

On June 4, the Deepwater Horizon Claims Center officially opened its headquarters in New Orleans, replacing Mr. Feinberg’s program. Headed by court-appointed administrator Patrick Juneau, the center will be receiving new claims, addressing unmet ones and reviewing the files of those previously rejected.

“At first I was given a little supplement from them and was promised more was coming. That hasn’t happened,” said Mr. Bailey, who also is seeking legal counsel. “They owe me more and I am not going to settle for less than what is owed.”

Related News:

Fears grow that oil spill will have long-term impact on Gulf region (FCN, 06-10-2010)

Runaway corporate greed haunts America (FCN, 06-02-2010)