Gulf fishing in crisis, but is BP oil spill to blame?

By many measures, fishing off the Louisiana coast is worse this year – but that's part of a long-term trend. The Gulf oil spill might be a factor, but perhaps not the primary one.

By , / staff writer

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    A commercial fishing boat sits anchored before sunrise in Grand Isle, La., on April 20. Grand Isle is a coastal community centered around fishing and tourism that was heavily impacted by last year's Gulf oil spill.
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John Barrios sighs wearily after a full morning of shrimping in his 16-foot aluminum boat. His reddish-brown skin bears witness to a lifetime under a beating sun: He started drawing catch from these waters off a skiff in the 1930s.

He's tired, there are too few shrimp, and prices are so low that going out each day seems almost futile. "My time is up," he says.

Like many in southwestern Louisiana whose lives revolve around harvest seasons in the Gulf of Mexico, Mr. Barrios turned to oil giant BP for a cash settlement after 25 million gallons of crude – the largest oil spill in US history – sullied these waters last summer and made shrimping impossible. He walked away with $60,000 and, though the fishing still stinks, won't go back for more.

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His reason: "The oil spill didn't hurt nothing. Before the oil spill, nobody was catching nothing."

It's difficult to calculate the spill's effect on an industry already hurting from decades of wetlands erosion and punishing hurricanes, scientists say. While fishing interests often insist that BP's malfeasance led to low shrimp prices and less public confidence in seafood safety, others say it will be years before the spill's impact on fish stocks is known.

"We can't say we've seen anything [that] we can, without a doubt, say, 'This is exposure related,' " says Randy Pausina, assistant director of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (DWF), which monitors fish in the Gulf. "We have to connect the dots back to the spill, and that's not always easy to do."

Helping to fund such research is none other than BP, which contributed $13 million for a three-year study of oil-related impacts on Gulf fishing. Slowing the process is the reproductive cycle of fish species. It takes several years for them to reach sexual maturity, meaning future harvests will be a better gauge of how well fish fared post-spill.

"The whole process is slow. You're not dealing with a fruit fly, which can hatch and go through its whole life cycle in days," says Christopher Stallings, a marine scientist at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

The volume of fish pulled up from the Gulf, measured by pound, has dropped for most species since the spill. Between January and March, the take of oysters and saltwater fish fell 54 percent and 35 percent, respectively, compared with the same period last year, according to DWF data. The decline for wild crawfish is even more dramatic: 83 percent. Yields of shrimp and crab, however, rose 24 and 4 percent, respectively.

Some of that dip could be because fewer boats are out on the water. But most fish stocks were in decline at least four years before the spill, data show. Some 137 million pounds of shrimp were hauled from the Gulf in 2006 compared with 72 million in 2010, a 47 percent loss. Similarly, oyster yields fell 41 percent in the same period, and saltwater fish dropped 36 percent.

Gold Band Oysters, an eighth-generation harvester in Houma, La., gathers 40,000 pounds of oysters a day – half the volume it did before the spill, says Greg Voisin, vice president of marketing and sales. Though he believes the Gulf has fewer oysters than before the spill, he is also optimistic about recovery.

"One oyster can create 1 million oysters. There's millions of oysters to start out on our reefs. If we recoup 3 percent of the spawn in one season, we'll have more oysters than we will know what to do with," Mr. Voisin says.

Deterioration and loss of coastal wetlands may be a worse culprit than the oil spill. Louisiana loses between 25 to 35 square miles of wetlands, or 25,000 acres, per year, according to the state Office of Coastal Protection and Restoration.

"In the shrimp world, erosion is changing the coast of Louisiana. When that changes, some habitats are lost, some change, and other species do better," Mr. Pausina says. "The oil may have been a pretty major cut, but we're dealing with a system that has already experienced, in some cases, chronic degradation."

Charter fishing is faring somewhat better a year after the spill, because boat captains maintain tight relationships with out-of-state clients and know where catches are still abundant.

Charter captain Eddie Burger, who works out of Venice, La., says his bookings remain solid. But he's cautious about the future. "We won't know in two to three years," he says, while cleaning the morning's catch on the marina dock. He's noticed a post-spill decline in big fish, such as blackfin tuna. "Honestly, I'm not blaming BP," he says. "It's been that way a couple of years."

Many say the biggest threat to the local fishing industry is public fear that the catch is tainted. Louisiana agencies that began collecting seafood samples 10 days after the spill report that not one among thousands has posed a threat to public health.

"The seafood is good," says Connie Townsend, co-owner of Sportsman's Paradise, a charter fishing operation and restaurant in Chauvin, La. Business is just half of what it was, but she says that, as clients return, word will spread that the fish is fine.

John Stephens of Stuttgart, Ark., who with his young son arrived in Venice for their annual fishing trip, vouches for that. This trip is the best they've "been on in four years, as far as catches go," he says. The oil spill kept them home last year. But the Stephenses are back this summer to cast their nets. "Nature," says Mr. Stephens, "works itself out."

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