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Gulf oil spill: Fishermen decry a lost season

July 31, 2010 | 10:17 am

Fishermen oil
The reopening of a broad swath of Louisiana waters this week to fishing and shrimping won't salvage the livelihoods of many Gulf of Mexico fishermen this season after the devastating effects of the catastrophic BP oil spill.

The lifting of restrictions has come too late to salvage the shrimping season in most of the areas, which typically runs from May to July, meaning that fishermen can’t trawl or hang funnel-shaped nets from their boats to make their catch.

And the weather is so hot — with gulf waters at temperatures approaching 90 degrees — that even the fish are lethargic. "It’s warm water — fish don’t bite.... That ain’t gonna make money,” said Peter Gerica, a third-generation fisherman of Lake Borgne, east of New Orleans. 

“It’s a weird situation here, and it’s a sad situation. Most of these guys have been sitting for 90 to 100 days, not having a dime.”

Gerica said many fishermen make significant money -- tens of thousands of dollars -- within the first 50 days of the first fishing season of the year, which began the first week of May.

Instead, fishermen faced a fishing ban after the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. 

“That’s gone. We can’t redo it. It’s not like you get a redo,” Gerica said.

The shrimp that hadn’t been harvested in recent months have migrated offshore and are heading toward Texas, Gerica said.

Louisiana officials Thursday reopened about 2,400 square miles of state waters, mostly east of New Orleans and the Mississippi River Delta, to fin fishing and shrimping. Areas south of the delta, including Terrebonne and Barataria bays, are still being slimed with oil and remain shut. About 84,000 square miles of federal fishing waters, farther offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, remain off limits to commercial fishing.

The announcement caught some fishermen off guard. Some expected that they would get a 72-hour warning. Many did not expect a reopening until at least two weeks from now. 

“They didn’t give us any forewarning.... So everyone was caught with their pants down,” said Ray Brandhurst of Chalmette, La.

Many fishermen must repair vessels and change nets before returning to sea. “We’re still scrambling to put things together. 

“It’s unprecedented the way they’re doing this,” Brandhurst said.

George Barisich, president of the United Commerical Fishermen’s Assn., worried that there may not be much public demand for gulf seafood, noting that prices for local shrimp fell before restrictions on shrimping were enacted once the extent of the oil spill was known.

“The price dropped 30%, 40% before they even closed the season on us, because the [of the] perception that something, maybe, was wrong with them. So we have a black eye, so to speak,” Barisich said. “It’s a whole monster of problems. Even if we do catch shrimp, they may not be able to sell it.”

On Friday, U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg sought to dispel consumer doubts at a New Orleans news conference where she outlined the FDA's rigorous testing of all gulf seafood in the wake of the spill. “These waters have been carefully examined, in terms of oil contamination and in terms of the safety of the seafood to be harvested," she said. "We all feel very confident standing here today that the products that will be harvested from these waters will be safe, wholesome and delicious.”

Moreover, now is the peak time to harvest crabs and oysters, but those crustaceans and bivalves are still off limits.Testing of crab meat is more complex and takes longer. Oysters will probably be the last seafood to be approved for consumption, partly because they cannot move to cleaner waters and because harmful substances are more likely to accumulate in the oysters.

The oyster ban has been devastating to a region known for its succulent bivalves. Louisiana's 1.6 million acres of public oyster beds, and more than half of its 400,000 privately leased acres, are off limits. Hundreds of oystermen have stopped fishing. Processors have shut down. Gulf restaurants have closed, and chains such as Red Lobster have yanked the briny morsels off their menus.

--Rong-Gong Lin in New Orleans

Photo: Gulf fishermen have suffered during the closure of local waters. Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times.