In the bayou, fish and oil have mixed for decades

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 20, 2010; C01

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."

Wilbert Collins, still harvesting oysters at 72, said there have been plenty of smaller spills that no one made a fuss over. He said he knows very well what it's like to eat an oyster that's been hit with an oil spill.

"You just taste the oil. It stays in there a couple of weeks," he said at the emergency claim center. The word from inside was that BP would give $2,500 per fisherman as an advance on any future claim. Just show some paperwork, some trip tickets, something to establish one's credentials as a fisherman.

What no one can provide, though, is any peace of mind right now. The oil this week has started to hit the grass in the outer marshlands. Meanwhile, there is the great unknown of the chemical dispersants that have been used to break up the oil.

"The medicine they're spraying on there, we don't know how bad it is," Collins said.

Shrimper Thomas Barrios chimed in: "Is our kids going to get cancer and all that? Is it going to make people sick?"

Martin Folse, owner of an independent TV station called HTV, in Houma, has toured the spill by helicopter and shown long stretches of unedited footage revealing the oil already touching some of the islands west of the Mississippi. As grave as the situation is, though, he casts no blame.

"I can't sit here and criticize oil because I live in an area that oil has built. But seafood has built it, too. It's two very powerful industries that has been affected at one time," Folse said. "It's like watching two brothers fight. You can't pick a side. You gotta work with both sides."

At an outdoor bait stand on the road along the bayou, Randy Borne Jr., 30, had been looking forward to making a little money in his second year in business. But the charter boat captains have had so many cancellations because the authorities have closed the federal waters to fishing. That means the captains aren't buying his bait. Life is tough at the bottom of the monetary food chain.

He was getting ready to go to the new claim center, but ran into a snag: No paperwork.

"The W-2 form, I sent it off for my food stamps," his wife, Casey, 22, told him.

"You sent off a copy," he said, hoping.

"No," she said.

Tension flared. Some panic. He stomped off.

She said to a reporter, "I'm scared that it will come."

The oil, she meant.

"Right now we're not making much as it is."

She and Randy retreated inside their home. Outside, deckhand Clerville Kief III, whose grandfather had founded the hardware store in Galliano, smoked a cigarette and pondered the calamity.

"You're never going to stop human error," he said. "We don't got nothing against the oil industry around here. We need petroleum products in order for us to operate."

Randy Borne eventually figured out a plan -- to show the BP people the trip tickets, the documentation of every time he's been out in the marsh catching shrimp.

The Bornes and Kief then climbed into a battered red pickup to race up the road to the claim center. Just before pulling away, Randy Borne jumped out of the truck and returned to shake the reporter's hand.

"Four or five nights I've had no sleep," he said, and apologized as if he had seemed rude.

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