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Oil spill's human impact: Oil and fish define south Louisiana's working life

Whether it's fish and shrimp or oil and gas, working on the water is a way of life for many people. But that life could change now with the massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

By Bill SasserCorrespondent / May 1, 2010

Charter and commercial fishermen listen to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration administrator Jane Lubchenco, not pictured, in Venice, La., Friday. Local fishermen are worried about how their industry will withstand a growing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico near the coast of Louisiana.

Patrick Semansky/AP

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Venice, Louisiana

Tony Fricke’s office window offers a harbor side view of two industries that for several generations have been the life blood of south Louisiana – fishing and oil.

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Site supervisor of the Venice port complex, he oversees the harbor at the mouth of the Mississippi where commercial fishing boats and oil rig tenders weigh anchor for the Gulf of Mexico. Half of Plaquemine Parish’s 23,000 residents make their living on the water. But over the past week and for the foreseeable future, fishing has given way to containing the massive and on-going Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Fricke grew up working in the nearby Venice Boat Harbor, at his parent’s marina store serving charter fishing boats. After graduating from Booth-Venice High School, he spent eighteen years working for an oil distribution company, his duties including ferrying fuel barges up the Mississippi.

IN PICTURES: Louisiana oil spill

“If you’re born and raised here, working on the water is a way of life,” said Fricke. “Commercial fishing, charter fishing, and working in the oil industry, that’s what most people do to make their living. But the most jobs and best paying ones are working for the oil companies.”

While local communities in other regions have often been at odds with oil companies over the environmental risks of oil production, the industry is so intertwined with life in south Louisiana that past spills, along with the wetland erosion attributed in part to oil production, had been accepted by many as the cost of making a living.

“It’s like hurricanes,” said Fricke, who spent two years rebuilding his house after Hurricane Katrina. “We’re used to getting hit down here, but then we clean up and life goes on.”

While the effects of the Horizon spill could be devastating for the region’s environment, local officials have so far avoided direct criticism of BP in their statements on the spill.

“We shouldn’t overreact,” said Parish President Billy Nungesser, who made a fortune converting steel shipping containers into efficiency housing for oil workers before entering politics after Hurricane Katrina. “It’s one accident. Don’t stop the drilling or you’re going to put people out of work when we don’t know the future of south Louisiana. They’ve got families to feed. Like I said before, we don’t to shut down all the planes every time there’s a plane crash.”

With almost his next breath, Nungesser praised Plaquemines as an unparalleled sportsman’s paradise.

“We have private fishing boats here from Australia, from all over the world,” he said. “Venice has been rated as the number one fishing spot in the US for many years over. You don’t leave this parish without a pile of fish. The only thing else we have here is oil and gas. And we’re the number one producer of oil and gas in the state of Louisiana.”

For many local fishermen, however, the slow motion disaster of the Horizon spill is changing the calculus of coexisting with the oil industry.

“There’s going to be some anger this time if we lose all our oysters and shrimp,” said commercial fishermen Ben Vodopija of nearby Buras.

This time of year, Vodopija would usually be making the final adjustments on his boat and nets before the start of the shrimping season. Instead, he was spending a Saturday morning waiting in line outside the Boothville-Venice School for a hazardous materials handling class, to qualify for work as an independent contractor for BP deploying oil booms in the Gulf.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen with all this and it could be real, real bad,” he says. “We might not be fishing for three years after this.”

IN PICTURES: Louisiana oil spill

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