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On Gulf, coming tourist, fishing seasons will reveal oil spill legacy

A year after the Deepwater Horizon explosion triggered the mammoth Gulf oil spill, fishermen, hotel owners, and oil workers in Grand Isle, La., aren't sure if the old nature-oil balance can be regained.

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In short, it illustrated the argument that environmentalists have been making for decades: The spill was "a real-time example of how the Gulf has been the nation's sacrifice zone," says Aaron Viles, deputy director of the Gulf Restoration Network, a New Orleans-based environmental organization.

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Siding with environmentalists against the oil industry – the economic lifeblood of the region – is an unfamiliar and unsettling proposition for many here. To be sure, Mayor David Camardelle and the vast majority of residents remain ardent supporters of the oil industry. Yet the dramatic impact of the spill – and government findings that BP and the Deepwater contractors played fast and loose with the Macondo well – has spilled over into serious and unprecedented questioning of the island's dependence on powerful corporations whose interests sometimes run counter to the long-term survival of Grand Isle.

In an unusual protest after the spill, one resident erected 101 white crosses in his yard painted with the names of spill victims: "Speckled Trout," "Oysters," "Dolphins," "Playing Volleyball."

"I think where the coastal community is on the oil industry now is that, 'We're fine with you being there, we don't want the jobs to go away, but we also need to take care of what we all rely on,' " says Mr. Viles.

For now, scientists say the damage to the Gulf does not appear to be devastating. But the study that showed ecological resilience also noted uncertainties. The complexities of the spill "reveal the difficulty in assessing damages and the near impossibility in predicting the environmental impact or time of recovery," wrote Wes Tunnell of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M Corpus Christi, author of the report.

Specifically, the spill came when the natural defenses of the Gulf were under strain, with algal blooms creating broad oxygen-depleted "dead zones" and coastal marshland rapidly disappearing.

"It is unclear today whether the Gulf is as resilient as it was 30 years ago," Dr. Tunnell writes.

On Grand Isle, there is fear that the spill did irrevocable damage to not just this year's fish catches, but to at least two generations of eggs, fry, and oyster spat that could lead to a fish stock collapse in three or four years. A similar thing happened to the Alaskan herring stocks four years after the Exxon Valdez disaster. Moreover, a February poll showed that 70 percent of Louisianans still have reservations about eating fish, shrimp, and oysters culled from the spill area.

"We'll see what this year brings," says lifelong Grand Isle shrimper Michael Frazier, flashing a brave smile. "We're worried. It's iffy-iffy."

But there are positive signs. With Mr. Obama signaling a great­er emphasis on domestic energy, some are hopeful. Da­vid, a former deep-water rig worker forced to take a security guard job after the postspill moratorium, is reading the trade magazines for job openings.

"Halliburton and all these guys are now hiring 100, 150 guys," he says. "That means they're gearing up again, which is great. I don't want to spend the rest of my life as a security guard."

Grand Isle folks, however, are not prone to surrender: "They won't let this area go," Boss says. "There's too much at stake."


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