Louisiana fishermen contemplate livelihoods forever changed by gulf oil spill

Thick, heavy oil floats in the water of Chandeleur Sound, about 40 miles northeast of Venice, La.
By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 4, 2010

SHELL BEACH, LA. -- Johnny Nunez left for work at 5 a.m. out of habit, even though he feared he might never work again. He put on rubber boots, jeans and a T-shirt and drove a mile to the same dock where he had tied a fishing boat for 35 years. The air still smelled like sea salt. The marsh still glistened a crisp blue. The wind still knocked the boats from left to right, left to right, as seagulls circled above. But everything else had changed.

"What am I going to do?" Nunez said.

Soon, more than 20 other men were standing with him on the dock, fishermen who had been told not to fish. The oil was coming, sooner or later, and now there was nothing to do but watch and wait. The older men drank Bud Ice; the young ones drank Red Bull. Their quiet was interrupted by the approaching sound of large sport-utility vehicles traveling toward them on a dead-end road.

It was a small motorcade, and Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) and a local politician walked up to greet the fishermen. They had come with good news, they said. BP was hiring boats to help clean up the oil spill. Here was a chance to get back in the water and back to work.

Only after the SUV pulled away, leaving the fishermen to rehash the opportunity, did the assignment become more clear: If they endured a three-hour training session on how to place protective booms around the marsh, the fishermen might be hired to work part time, for mediocre wages, dealing with hazardous materials for the very company whose leaking oil was threatening their welfare.

Nunez, 55, stood on the dock with the other fishermen and considered his options. He had been fishing in the surrounding Biloxi Marsh for most of his life, and he loved the peacefulness of a place where redfish and trout outnumbered people. His grandfather had trapped otters and raccoons in the tall grass; his father had helped build the nearby canal. He hated the idea of working anyplace else.

He also hated the idea of working for BP. Because of the oil spill, U.S. Army boats now navigated through the marsh using Global Positioning System devices, and a spokesman for BP stood near the dock in khakis and loafers while holding a piece of paper labeled "Suggested Talking Points."

Nunez tried to imagine working alongside him.

"I guess they think we're desperate," he said.

* * *

Nunez's wife, Karen, picked him up at the dock that afternoon in a battered Ford, and Nunez joined her in the front of the cab. They sat in silence with the engine off.

"I keep getting teary-eyed," Nunez said, finally.

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