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The ‘Sacrifice Zone’: Life As A Fisherman Along Louisiana’s Vanishing Coastline

ST. BERNARD PARISH, LOUISIANA — The two powerhouse industries in the state of Louisiana — fossil fuels and seafood — have been locked in a fraught dance for decades, intimately tied together but frequently at odds in the same shrinking coastal estuaries.

Ties between the two worlds are everywhere. The exhibit in New Orleans’ aquarium celebrating the diversity of Gulf Coast sea life is sponsored by Shell, BP and ExxonMobil. The museum’s educational “Aquavan” is sponsored by Chevron. Annual celebrations like the Shrimp and Petroleum Festival tout the “marriage” of the two industries.

But years of fighting BP and other oil companies for compensations for toxic spills in their waters, and witnessing the push-back to a never-before-attempted lawsuit against nearly 100 different oil and gas companies for causing rapid wetland erosion, has threatened that tenuous “marriage.” Now, a growing sector of the fishing community is speaking out, accusing the fossil fuel industry of threatening their very existence.

“We’re paying the price for their greed and irresponsible exploration,” said lifelong commercial shrimper George Barisich, whose business and home were badly damaged by Hurricane Katrina and the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. “They went ‘balls to the wall’ with their drilling because they didn’t care. It was just money, money, money.”

On a bright, clear day in December, as pelicans circled overhead, Barisich steered his 50-foot-long boat along the bayou in St. Bernard Parish’s Shell Beach, looking out at the waters he’s worked since he was nine years old. As he headed for a fuel station to fill up for a multi-day shrimping trip, he lamented having to continue paying money to the industry that caused him so much harm.

Commercial shrimper George Barisich steers his boat to the refueling dock.

Commercial shrimper George Barisich steers his boat to the refueling dock.

CREDIT: Alice Ollstein

“Well, I can’t put a sheet on the rig and sail this thing,” he said. “If I don’t have affordable diesel, you can’t get nothing to eat, can you? You’re married to oil whether you want to be or not. But you gotta push them to do the best they can.”

Fishermen along the state’s vulnerable coastline aren’t only customers of the oil and gas industry, they’re often employees. Fish, shrimp, oysters and crabs all have their season, and during the off-season, communities have for decades turned to lucrative temporary jobs on the oil rigs that dot the Gulf of Mexico.

Thomas Dardar, Chief of the United Houma Nation, said this is true for many men in his coastal Louisiana tribe, himself included. “Normally, when one industry is impacted, the other industry supports the group,” he explained. “These guys would trawl [for shrimp] when the season was good, then they’d work in the oil field. When the oil field would go down, they’d go back to trawling.”

However, many fishermen have come to see the oil industry less as a convenient source of extra income, and more as a destructive force along Louisiana’s crumbling coastline — not only for the deadly accidents and spills, but also their major role in the rapid erosion of the wetlands that serve as a crucial nursery for many seafood species.

Kindra Arnesen, who works in the commercial fishing industry in Venice, Louisiana, spoke bitterly of the cavalier attitude she believes oil companies have shown toward her community. “They sacrifice everything we work for and hold dear,” she said. “The oil industry has a bad habit of take, take, take and they don’t put anything back. To them, we’re like Maxwell House: good to the last drop.”

Oil And Water

Arnesen and her husband currently scrape together a living by fishing and running a barbecue restaurant on the dwindling scrap of land between the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico that houses their small community. On any given day, she said, they’re out on one of their four boats “depending on season and what creature we’re chasing.”

Growing up just a few miles upriver in Buras, Louisiana, she spent her childhood gathering oysters from the then-healthy estuaries that kept enough of the salt water at bay to ensure a mildly brackish environment for the mollusks to grow.

Then came the canals, dredged through the marshes by dozens of different oil and gas companies as they explored for rich underwater deposits and installed thousands of miles of pipeline wherever they struck black gold.

In the drilling leases, companies were required to fill in these canals after the rigs and pipelines were installed. But those requirements have been ignored for decades, giving salt water from the gulf easy freeways to come in and eat away at the roots of the plants holding the remaining wetlands together.

Today, Arnesen calls her community the “sacrifice zone.”

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CREDIT: Alice Ollstein

“The waterline keeps pushing in all around us,” she said. “It happened gradually for a while, then it was a sudden increase in coastal erosion. If you talk to the old people down here, they’ll tell you how far out they used to live. Those places they talk about are no longer there.”

As drilling activity sprang up around them, the Plaquemines Parish waters Arnesen and her husband trawl became increasingly littered with old and in-use fossil fuel infrastructure. Nearly every other week, the wheel of one of their boats will catch on a piece of oil rig or pipeline and break.

“It’s an underwater junkyard,” she said. “These companies aren’t even pretending to clean up their mess. When they’re finished using something, they don’t remove it or maintain it. It’s out of sight, out of mind.”

As an historic lawsuit against 97 different oil and gas companies seeking billions in damages inches its way through the courts, fishermen like Arnesen along the Louisiana coast say their livelihoods are increasingly threatened by the vanishing coastline. “A lot of these species won’t spawn if you don’t have an estuary for them to grow up in,” she explained.

Because oysters are filter feeders, with massive volumes of water going through their systems every day, George Barisich calls them “the canary in the mine” for the health of the entire bay ecosystem.

“Once you kill the oysters, they may never come back,” he said, adding that while the erosion “hasn’t killed all the big ones, we’ve had almost no babies. And no babies means no reef, no future.”

According to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the oyster population in the Lake Pontchartrain Basin dropped a staggering 71 percent between 2009 and 2012. Statewide, the harvest has dipped 27 percent. Experts blame the decline on both the BP spill that blanketed the coast in oil in 2010 and the freshwater diversions from the Mississippi River the state has used in controversial attempts to push the oil out to sea and save New Orleans from floods.

These sediment diversions also buried the oyster beds — the banks made of broken stones and shells where oyster larvae attach and grow — in muddy, polluted river water, causing algal blooms that further wreaked havoc on the struggling reefs.

And other species have taken a hit as well. Louisiana’s data shows that blue crab catches are down an average of 18 percent, and brown shrimp slid 39 percent compared with the 2002-2009 haul.

In addition to sediment diversion and the impacts of other coastal industries, fishermen along the Gulf Coast also have to grapple with the effects of climate change. Sea level rise and wetland loss result in habitat destruction for crucial species. “Ocean warming could support shifts in local species composition, invasive or new locally viable species, changes in species growth rates, shifts in migratory patterns or dates, and alterations to spawning seasons,” the recently released U.S. National Climate Assessment explained. “Any of these could affect the local or regional seafood output and thus the local economy.”

For some, the outlook is bleak. “Local communities are suffering. People who used to be fishing are not working,” said third generation fisherman Byron Encalade. A lifelong native of Pointe a la Hache, Louisiana, a predominantly African American fishing community, Encalade says wetland erosion has turned his life into a constant fight to save his “oyster-driven community.”

“Whole islands have disappeared in my lifetime,” he said. “We’ve seen our whole ecosystem change since I was a young boy.”

Encalade says he has also seen firsthand how the loss of the surrounding wetlands and barrier islands has made storms more destructive. Born around the time when Hurricane Flossy hit the coast in 1956, he said his family waited out that storm. In 1965, he remembers getting through Hurricane Betsy relatively unscathed. But 2005’s Hurricane Katrina nearly wiped his community out, and neighbors who fled are just now starting to return — nearly a decade later.

As president of the Louisiana Oystermen Association, which represents oyster fishermen of color, Encalade goes before the local parish government, the state legislature and the U.S. Congress to demand changes to the way the fossil fuel world and the seafood world interact in the Gulf of Mexico. Though he himself and many of his family members have worked oil industry jobs over the years, Encalade says his experiences have left him with the frustrating impression that the Louisiana government wants fishermen “to be subordinate” to the oil and gas industry.

“How would you feel if your tax dollars went to subsidize a business that’s making millions of dollars? To build a platform for oil companies to drill their oil, then you gotta pay some ridiculous price for that oil?” he asked. “Our government says, ‘I can do without everything else, but I can’t do without gas and oil.’ They don’t realize and recognize that people is your number one resource.”

Down in Venice, Louisiana, Arnesen had a similar epiphany when a BP and Halliburton oil well exploded in 2010, leaking 200 million gallons of oil, much of which remains in the ocean to this day. Following that and subsequent polluting spills, the state government continues to lavish tax breaks on the industry.

“I am not the same person I was prior to the Deepwater Horizon spill. I never will be,” she said. “It’s like someone let the air out of my tires, learning how corrupt our elected officials are. I thought I lived in the best country in the world. But no, it’s just drill, baby, drill; kill, baby, kill. And whatever is in the way doesn’t matter. The greed is disgusting to me.”

After struggling to rebuild from the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Isaac — each of which caused tens of thousands of dollars worth of damage — as well as the nearby blowout of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil well, Arnesen followed many of her former neighbors in making the painful decision to put her house up for sale.

“I love this place,” she said. “When you live on the water all your life, you develop a kinship that’s inexplainable. I’d rather be on the water than anywhere else in the world.”

Two hard years later, with the price of flood insurance sky-high, she’s had no luck finding a buyer.

“I don’t want to live here anymore. I don’t want to be here anymore,” she said. “I understand why no one wants to buy our place, because who wants to invest 30 years in a house and in five minutes it’ll be gone?”

Hurt By The Illness, Hurt By The Cure

Like many in his community, Byron Encalade supports the Flood Protection Authority’s massive lawsuit that seeks billions of dollars in damages from dozens of fossil fuel entities. “It’s sad, but the oil companies have done a lot of wrong in Louisiana and it’s time for them to come straighten it out,” he said.

Encalade emphasized, however, that it’s more important to change the laws on the books to prevent future harms to the coastal wetlands. He expressed worry that if things continue as they are now, his community will lose not only their income source, but their traditional food source.

“We don’t have the policies we need to protect the community or the natural resources,” he said. “If you practice the same thing you’ve practiced for 20 or 30 years, and you’re seeing your reefs steadily deplete but you fail to make adjustments, it’s disastrous. We’ve depleted the reefs to the point where they almost don’t exist, and that’s going to accelerate coastal erosion.”

Other local fishermen say the measures the state has used to combat the harm caused by the fossil fuel industry have been just as damaging or more so than the spills and erosion they aim to fix.

One tool the state has been using for decades involves selectively diverting some of the sediment-heavy Mississippi River into rapidly eroding areas in an attempt to build them back up.

Louisiana plans to divert muddy water from the Mississippi river to restore the wetlands, but it may do more harm than good.

Louisiana plans to divert muddy water from the Mississippi river to restore the wetlands, but it may do more harm than good.

CREDIT: Alice Olstein

A recent study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration failed to reach a solid conclusion on whether or not the diversions are working. Another by the National Academy of Sciences found that they may make wetlands more vulnerable to hurricanes.

Despite these findings, under the state’s current 50 year “master plan” the number of such diversions would nearly double. The planned additions would involved intentional breaches of levees that would allow massive amounts of fresh water and mud to wash into the salty coastal marshes.

Arnesen, who has already witnessed the impacts of this tactic, said past diversions into the Barataria Basin “blew the bay out,” eroding land quicker than before and wiping out much of the vulnerable oyster population. If the freshwater diversions increase as planned, “it’ll wash all this out,” she said.

Residents of the coastal area have additional concerns about the pollutants in the Mississippi River — the same ones that have created a massive ‘dead zone’ in the Gulf of Mexico — being funnelled into the coastal estuaries where they gather fish, shrimp and oysters.

While some, such as Byron Encalade, believe emphatically that the sediment diversions are necessary, other fishermen, including George Barisich, characterized the state’s plan as a risky gamble that could just as likely destroy as save the wetlands.

“You’re playing a game with my life,” he said. “It’s a high-stakes game with me in the pot.”

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