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.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.