Gloom infects the hard-working shrimp and crab docks of the gritty fishing town of Lafitte, La., and other communities on the Gulf Coast as the second full year of fishing since BP's catastrophic oil spill kicks into high gear.
Usually, locals are upbeat and busy in May, when shrimpers get back to work in Louisiana's rich waters. This spring, though, catches are down, docks are idle and anxiety is growing that the ill effects of the massive BP oil spill that spewed almost 800 million litres of oil into the Gulf of Mexico may be far from over.
An Associated Press examination of catch data from last year's commercial harvest along the Gulf — the first full year of fishing since the 2010 spill — reveals merit in the fishermen's complaints. According to the analysis of figures obtained through public records requests, seafood crops hit rock bottom in the Barataria estuary, the same place where some of the thickest waves of oil washed in when the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded on April 20, 2010.
Detailed data from "trip tickets" fishermen fill out when they unload at docks reveal steep drops in Barataria, though it's far from bleak everywhere along the Gulf Coast. Fishermen are making money that is pretty equal to before the spill, according to the 2011 data not officially released yet by the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Part of the reason is that though the fishermen aren't hauling in as much, prices are up so people are paying more for seafood from the Gulf than other sources.
Too early to link slow shrimp season with spill
In Barataria, the number of shrimpers in the water has remained steady, yet the fall season was off by about 3.2 million kilograms from an average of 8.2 million kilograms between 2006 and 2009. It wasn't a pretty picture for blue crabs either in Barataria: the crab catch was off by 1.2 million kilograms from an average of 4.3 million kilograms between 2006 and 2009, the data showed.
Fresh water from a historically high Mississippi River could have been the culprit for some of the drop off in productivity, marine experts said. Another factor may be that some areas in the estuary were closed because of oil contamination. One such place is Bay Jimmy, where oil is still gooey and thick on the shores.
'I'm afraid that oil spill has ruined us.' — Ken Lee, shrimp dock owner
Fishermen blame the spill. In Lafitte, they said the new shrimp season was off to a slow start.
"I'm afraid that oil spill has ruined us," said Ken Lee, a shrimp dock owner. "We're hardly unloading any brown shrimp at all."
For now, though, a range of government officials, scientists and seafood experts say it's much too early to make any definite link between the oil spill and one-year declines in catches. Seafood harvests, while generally predictable, are subject to fluctuations even in the best of times.
But Lee shook his head as he looked over a sheet tallying recent shrimp loads in the past few days. It was slim pickings. Moments before, an 18-wheeler pulled away from his dock with just seven vats of frozen fresh shrimp. The truck has room for more than 40, he said.
"That's pitiful!" he said. "We usually load a truck full."
Catches low but prices high
While catches were off, though, prices were high. The Louisiana data shows fishermen actually made as much or more in 2011 than they had in previous years. The total values of the blue crab and oyster harvests were higher than the six-year average.
Taken as a whole, the volume of seafood harvested last year in Louisiana for shrimp, crabs and oysters showed only modest drops from averages for 2003-2009, according to the AP analysis. Catches for 2010, the year of the spill, were excluded because much of the Gulf was shut down. Meanwhile, in Texas, the oyster and crab hauls were down slightly from 2003-2009 averages, the AP analysis showed.
Drought could have been a cause there, a Texas official said. The state did not have figures on its shrimp catch. Florida's data showed no major swings in harvests of oysters, crabs and shrimp. Mississippi's shrimp haul was down about 13 per cent from 2003-2009 averages, and its small-scale crab harvest was down 52 per cent. From the 2003-2009 average, Alabama's brown shrimp catch was off 12 per cent, blue crabs were off 27 per cent and oysters down by about 50 per cent, the state's data showed.
Fishermen say economic conditions were tough before the BP spill because of imports, high fuel prices and hurricanes. But now, they say they've reached a low point since the BP well blowout.
In Bon Secour, Ala., Mike Skinner, a third-generation shrimper whose entire family works in the business, said last fall was the worst season he had ever seen.
"Hopefully, it was a fluke thing. We'll find out this year," he said as he piloted his trawler across Mobile Bay.
In Alabama, seafood sales are down about 10 per cent to $146 million US in the two years since the BP gusher, according to an Auburn University study obtained by the AP. The downturn represented nearly $16 million in lost sales and has left few fishing boats in industry hubs like the Bon Secour River.
BP says Gulf seafood abundant
To ease the hardships, BP has given $48.5 million to Gulf states so they can market their seafood industries on websites, TV commercials, billboards and print ads that say the catch is healthy.
BP spokesman Craig Savage said the Gulf seafood industry was strong.
"The fact is, the data show that seafood from the Gulf of Mexico is safe and abundant, according to numerous government reports," he said.
Truly identifying any effect of the spill on marine stocks won't be possible from landings data for several years, said Chuck Wilson, executive director of the Louisiana Sea Grant College Program, a university-based group of agents and researchers.
Still, there's reason to be wary, said Olivia Watkins, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
"We are seeing a number of anomalies in the Gulf of Mexico," Watkins said. "We should not attempt to draw premature conclusions."
The long-term prognosis for the Gulf's health remains uncertain.
Recent studies have found higher numbers of sick fish close to where BP's well blew out and genome studies of bait fish in Barataria have identified abnormalities. Meanwhile, vast areas of the cold and dark Gulf seafloor are oiled, scientists say.
And many fishermen are convinced something's amiss.
"I think the oil can kill the shrimp eggs. That's why there was no shrimp to catch last year," said Tuna Pham, a 40 -year-old Vietnamese-American shrimper docked in Lafitte. He said the catch this year was bad again.
"We was there to work but couldn't," said Lawrence Salvato, 49, as he stopped for lunch on a dock where he moors a shrimp skiff he runs with his wife, Lisa. "Usually, people are excited, and they can't wait to get out there. This year, there's no real incentive."
He said he made about $10,000 in seafood sales last year compared to $75,000 in 2009. He said his family made do with a $40,000 interim payment they got from BP. Fishermen who haven't settled legally yet with BP over damages continue to survive on periodic payments from a $20 billion trust fund set up by BP.
"We're afraid," Salvato said. "A lot of people are getting out of fishing. They're afraid."