Louisiana fishermen contemplate livelihoods forever changed by gulf oil spill

By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 4, 2010; A01

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.

"We'll make it," Karen said. "We always have."

"I don't know nothing else," he said. "I can make a boat dance, and that's it."

He had quit school to start fishing at age 12, joining his father and grandfather on the water to work as a crabber, an oysterman and a shrimper before starting his own business as a fishing guide in the 1980s. He bought new boats and taught himself to build his own docks. A brother and three sons joined him as deckhands. Friends started calling him "The Fishing Magician," a nickname earned by navigating the darkest channels of the Biloxi Marsh. The moniker had since become the name of his business, and he wore a "Fishing Magician" T-shirt most days of the week and printed the phrase on his mailbox.

During a good month of guiding, he sometimes made $10,000. During a bad month, he brought in less than $100. A fisherman had no choice but to live catch-to-catch, crisis-to-crisis, he said. Hurricane Katrina wiped out their house, so they built another in the same place and raised it on 14-foot stilts. Imports knocked the price of shrimp to 80 cents per pound -- the same amount he made in 1973 -- so he worked 16-hour days to double his catch. The recession cut his guiding business in half, so Karen took on long hours as a school librarian and stayed late to supervise aftercare.

"This oil is the one thing where there's no recovering," Nunez said. "If we lose the fish and the land, there's no building back. This whole way of life is going. This whole generation is lost. I'm 55 years old, and I might not fish again."

"God only gives what you can take," Karen said. "Maybe we can sell the house and the boats."

"To who?" he asked. "Who is going to want to be out on this water, fishing for no fish?"

"Then what's your plan?"

Nunez faced ahead toward the truck's front window, looking out beyond the dock to the Shell Beach Canal. "There might be a way to get a few days' work," he said, and then he told Karen about the possibility of attending a training class and working for BP.

"It's not much," he said.

"Maybe just check it out," Karen said. "It's something."

* * *

Nunez and one of his sons arrived for the 7:30 a.m. class at 6:50, just to be safe. They stood in a line with 500 other fishermen, only the first 100 of whom would be allowed to enter the training. A few dozen sneaked into a back entrance of the municipal building, filling up the room early, and some people waiting in line started to bang on the doors. A representative from BP stepped outside. "Please stay calm," he said. "We'll have another session this afternoon at 1." Four police cars pulled up, and Nunez walked to his truck and drove back to the dock.

He returned early enough to be the first in the line for the 1 p.m. training, entering past a dozen Army officers who had been assigned to guard the door. Nunez sat in the first row of seats, and a trainer for BP stepped to the front of the room.

"Thanks for being here," the trainer said. "This is the first step toward getting some work. Now as far as when you'll get that call, I'm not positive. There are a lot of you. I heard something about how we might pick names out of a hat."

The trainer started a slide show on a projection screen at the front of the room. The first slide read: "BP values our relationship with everyone that's involved in this process. Your assistance in this difficult time is very much appreciated by BP, your Community, the affected states and your country." Then began a two-hour safety presentation that seemed more like a comedy show to an audience of men who made their living on the water.

"The worst outcome of a slip or trip is a fall," read one slide.

"Never lift anything heavier than 25 pounds," read another.

"Sun exposure may produce long-term health risks."

"Animals such as alligators are indigenous to the deep south."

Nunez shook his head and sighed. "These people have no common sense," he said. But when the presentation ended, he followed the rest of the fishermen to a sign-up table. He wrote down his name and contact information and handed it to a representative for BP, who plugged it into a database. "Better than nothing," Nunez said, sounding unconvinced. Working for these people was now the only way to work on the water. He drove back to the dock and waited for a call.

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