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.

By , / Correspondent

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    Charter-boat captains wait to receive economic-loss checks from BP in Grand Isle, La. The Gulf oil spill is threatening shrimpers' livelihoods along the state's Gulf Coast.
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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.

"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,"

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Yet today, there is little hope in Grand Isle that the same bootstrap mentality will help them weather the disaster currently unfolding in slow motion in the Gulf of Mexico.

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.

Still, on his only run of the season before the spill closed the Gulf, Terry brought in $16,000 worth of shrimp on a six-day haul to Breton Sound. And many shrimpers don't have a Plan B. "Shrimping is all we know," Terry says. "I couldn't tell you what a job application looks like. This contract with BP is the first one I've ever signed. We'll do the best we can."

But the drawn-out nature of the disaster seems to be taking its toll. Across the docks at Dean Blanchard Seafood, Dean Blanchard talks with several local shrimpers, as sunburned fishermen come to an office window to pick up what might be one of their few checks of the season.

Mr. Blanchard has never laid off workers in his 25 years of business. But he plans to do so soon.

"I'm 51 years old, and for the first time in my life I woke up yesterday morning and looked out my window at the water and saw one trawler out there working," he says. "All because the oil company wanted to save money on a $500,000 valve."

Indeed, tempers are beginning to fray. At a recent town council meeting with a BP representative, "We almost had a riot," says Blanchard.

The riot, apparently, was one woman – a business owner – whom the police chief threatened with arrest if she didn't calm down. The object of her anger, unsurprisingly, was BP, say residents who attended. But the cause of the outburst was not what might be expected: When BP set up a command post here, it decided to bring in trailers and an outside catering company to house and feed its workers.

In Grande Isle at this moment, what might have seemed courtesy or efficiency has instead been seen as crass tight-fistedness. The Sure Way grocery store, for instance, is losing $40,000 a week in business, says its owner, Walter Maples.

This is the start of tourist season in Grand Isle, home to one of Louisiana's few Gulf Coast beaches – and no one is coming. Motel and cottage owners are getting cancellation notices, says Mr. Maples, and his family faces major losses from a waterfront property they are developing.

"We have a $7 million investment with 40 lots left to sell, a note at the bank, and contractors who still haven't been paid," he says. "If the oil comes in here, how many lots do you think will sell?"

For Terrill Pizani, the spill merely confirms what he already knew: He doesn't want his 14-year-old son to be a shrimper. "He'll come [trawling], but I'll tell him not to get too attached," he says. "And he'll love it, but it ain't got a future."

Related:

Gulf oil spill's environmental impact: How long to recover?

Amid search for Deepwater Horizon oil rig survivors: What happened?

Oil spill: What is the threat to Gulf of Mexico seafood?

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