In the bayou, fish and oil have mixed for decades

Cleanup and containment efforts continue at the Gulf of Mexico site of the oil spill following the Deepwater Horizon explosion.
By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 20, 2010

PORT FOURCHON, LA. -- Joey Toups, shrimper, swears he's not suing anyone. "I don't like the lawyers," he says, unloading 100-count shrimp from his boat as, out in the gulf, a great mass of oil has begun caressing the grasses at the very tip of the delta.

Toups is a third-generation trawler, but he worked 14 years in the oil fields, building pipelines and welding for Exxon. Oil and fishing frame his life. He likes to fish out by the rigs that sprout on the gulf horizon.

"The oil rigs is a reef," Toups says. "It's the best fishing in the world here because we have so many reefs."

Fish and oil have mixed here for decades. Even now, in this hour of crisis, the shrimpers by and large do not rail against the oil industry. Nor do the crabbers. Or the oystermen.

These men are the epitome of small businesses -- in most cases just a fellow with a boat, and maybe a deckhand, heading out into the marsh at dawn or into the open gulf -- and BP is one of the largest companies in the world's biggest industry. This is a mismatch, Big Oil vs. small fish. And yet no one should expect to find a classic narrative of populist rage here, at least not yet, with the worst possibly still to come.

The oil industry gets a lot of slack here. This part of the world isn't quite like anywhere else. It's a matrix of land, marsh, bay, gulf, fresh water and salt water and every combination of water in between, but most of all it's an agglomeration of a booming oil industry and an old-time fishing culture.

Joey Toups, for example, berths his trawler within shouting distance of the boosting station of the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port (LOOP), where oil is piped toward storage tanks and refineries farther inland. And just down the two-lane road is the port itself, a boomtown without a town, just boatyards, industrial plants, warehouses, barracks, temporary office buildings that look like they were nailed together in a day, and a Conoco truck stop with a casino attached.

Port Fourchon has exploded in the past 15 years or so with the new technologies that enable deep drilling. There are hundreds of rigs offshore, and almost all are serviced by boats emerging from the port through Bayou Lafourche. No need to navigate the long Mississippi River channel here: The port is right on the gulf, offering a short trip to the LOOP or, farther out to sea, the site of the Deepwater Horizon blowout.

Although oil has scaled up around here, it's not a new presence. The oil companies began drilling in the bayou country some 80 or so years ago, locals say. Fishermen talk of the days when derricks sprouted in their back yards.

"My mama had an oil rig fall on her house," trawler Robert Guidry said as he left an emergency claims office set up by BP in Galliano, about 45 minutes by car up the bayou from the port.

No one was hurt that time, he said. This time he doesn't know if the Deepwater Horizon accident is going to crush him and his fellow watermen, but he is quick to say that Americans need oil.

"Without that, we'd have to live with candles in our house and go around in a horse and buggy," he said. In this area, he said, "oil naturally comes out of the ground -- it's almost like the Beverly Hillbillies."

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