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BP oil spill imperils Cajun culture

The Cajun culture has a rich tradition with deep ties to the Louisiana bayous. But the BP oil spill's impact on the economy and the environment is straining those ties.

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"I love it down here. There's no place I want to go," says Lyle Lecompte, a shrimper since 1978 who recalls a childhood splashing in the waters of Little Calliou Bayou alongside alligators – "Alligators don't eat Cajuns, they're scared of them," he says – and almost two dozen hurricane evacuations. Those consisted of strolling over to the family boat.

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But uncertainty about the future of the Cajuns' livelihood, and thus their identity, is creating what Savoy calls "a state of fear." The impact of the spill, as well as the tough regional economy, is once again testing their trademark resilience.

"It's either work for BP or find somewhere else," says Jerome Picou. "I don't want to do it. I want to shrimp."

Right now, that's difficult. Of the 640 miles of oiled coast, 362 miles are in Louisiana. To date, 57,539 square miles of federal Gulf waters, or 24 percent, remain closed to fishing. Scientists say the oil threatens commercial fishing by potentially preventing the growth of algae and other microscopic life that feeds the upper food chain, wiping out life on the seabed, such as crabs and oysters.

Because the volume of oil spilled is unprecedented, Myron Fischer, director of the fisheries research lab at Grand Isle State Park in Grand Isle, La., says it is uncertain how severe the damage will be on local waters. "Throughout history we have had various types of small tragedies: freezes, pollutants. But we've never experienced a large case of oil intrusion into estuarine areas," says Mr. Fischer. "We don't know how the oil is going to be absorbed by the vegetation, how's it going to disperse. It's a new challenge for all academic science."

According to BP, about 3,000 local vessels are being used to skim the oil and maintain booms. Mr. Lecompte is opting not to work as a BP oil skimmer because he worries about the chemical dispersants BP has been using to mitigate the oil. "I don't want to play in that oil. That ain't nice," he says. So, along with Mr. Picou, he spreads his nets along the bayou's grassy banks, cleans them, and waits. "I am ready to go shrimping anytime. When they want to open [closed fishing waters], let me know," he says.

The oil spill is particularly harsh because it follows decades of coastal erosion. According to the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, Louisiana has lost about 20 percent of its wetlands over the past century, or some 2,000 square miles. Today the coast is shrinking by almost 30 square miles each year.

Combined, the erosion problem and oil spill is "a two-headed monster" for Cajuns, says Jennifer Ritter, assistant director at the Center for Cultural and Eco-tourism at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette. There are not yet signs of a Cajun migration from the region, but Ms. Ritter speculates that if the seafood industry dries up, they will likely demonstrate the resourcefulness of their ancestors.

"They can create a livelihood in one fashion or another, from farming the land on top or grazing cattle or digging shallow ponds for crawfish or to grow rice. It's a very simple people we're talking about. They're able to find what they need where they live," she says.

Interviews with many Cajuns in this area all circle back to the same theme: an undeniable attraction to water and the area's natural beauty.

Tommy Thibodeaux, who is now skimming oil for BP, says he tried for years to turn away from his ancestral past, first working for Texaco and then, after being laid off, running a landscaping business for 10 years. He now mans his own shrimp boat, docked near his childhood home.

"I live on the water. I was brought up in it," he says. "You kind of have it in your blood."