With fishing grounds closed by Gulf oil spill, what's a shrimper to do?
The Gulf oil spill is fraying tempers and hope in Grand Isle, La., where shrimpers are idle during what would normally be the start of their busiest season.
Grand Isle, La.
From the deck of his brother's shrimp trawler at Grand Isle's commercial fishing docks, Terrill Pizani can point out the pine tree on Oak Street where his house once stood.Skip to next paragraph
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"There used to be 17 houses down this street," says the middle-aged Mr. Pizani, looking down the empty gravel road leading to the marina. "Hurricane Katrina washed away every single one of them."
With the hint of a shrug in his voice, his brother Terry adds: "After a hurricane, you ... clean up and then get back to shrimping,"
While Katrina-esque red tape looms – again, residents must negotiate with bureaucracies to recoup lost livelihoods – the Gulf oil spill has brought something unique and far more insidious to Louisiana's Gulf Coast: a corrosive uncertainty.
From day to day, fishermen do not know whether the state will let them take their boats out shrimping. They do not know if BP is ever going to call, asking them to put down protective booms – as the company has said it would. They do not know what to do if they have to continue living off occasional $5,000 BP assistance checks – less than one-third of what a single shrimping trip can bring in. Most important, they do not know when this is all going to end.
"Nobody knows what's going to happen with this," says Terry. "This has never happened before."
Idled during what would normally be the start of their busiest season, shrimpers are filling their days with busywork: converting their boats for boom work, making little repairs they otherwise wouldn't have time for, and stocking up on supplies to be ready if they're called to work for BP.
"It's either that or nothing," says Terry, who took training classes a week ago but hasn't gotten a call.
Anxiety over a lack of work has been heightened by the past five years, which have been tough for Louisiana shrimpers. Katrina led to a near collapse in shrimp prices, attributable partly to cheap foreign imports. A pound of shrimp that sold for $3.25 before Katrina went for as little as 50 cents last season.
"If we had been getting good prices, we wouldn't be so worried about the oil spill," says Terry, who started shrimping at age 16.