Louisiana’s Coastal Conservation Association Members
Moving Forward, In a Messy Situation
Everyone was talking about oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Looking at pictures of oil in the Gulf. If we were to compile our first Eco Awards winners, honoring the people and products having positive impacts on the boating environment, then in the aftermath of the April 20 explosion of Deepwater Horizon, we had to stick our hands into the oil too. Or at least make the effort.
So the call came to David Cresson’s iPhone, deep in the wetlands of Louisiana. He knew it was another media outlet reaching for an oil cleanup story.
“I’d like to give you what you’re looking for,” said Cresson, executive director of Louisiana’s chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association (CCA). “The truth is, they don’t want our members out there with shovels and buckets. We could have a thousand boats ready to go out and help tomorrow. But come on down and I’ll show you what we are doing.”
Six days later, with two bay boats in tow, we were in a caravan — Cresson, CCA Louisiana fish-tagging coordinator Tony Berrigan, CCA volunteers Sam Elliott and Paul Roberts, photographer Cy Cyr and I — traveling through the thick pre-dawn darkness toward the Gulf. Past mile upon mile of oil refineries, tanks and pipes. Past an emergency response center. Right up to a line of boats at Venice Marina, touted on signage as the “Fishing Capital of the World. ”Less than half of the men were here to fish on this August morning.
“Workers,” said Elliott, looking at boaters wearing telltale orange vests. The word workers had become new vernacular over the summer, referring simply to oil cleanup crews.
Elliott and his fellow CCA members were wary of losing perspective. Two days after the Deepwater Horizon exploded and caught fire, Cresson was notified that a friend, 28-year old Gordon Jones, was one of the 11 people missing from the rig. (His wife, Michelle, would give birth to their son three weeks later.) On April 30 Elliott towed his 21-foot Champion to the port in Hopedale, where he hoped to volunteer for the cleanup and instead found a media frenzy at the docks. “They were asking me to take ’em to oil,” he said. “They wanted pictures. That’s all they wanted.”
Then came the cataclysmic stories and the blaming and the “who’s gonna fix this?!”
“We purposefully stayed out of the finger-pointing,” Cresson said of the 15,000 CCA members. “After the initial shock of the tragedy, we just wanted to go out and start repairing.”
Repairing meant catching fish and tagging them. The CCA’s tagging program has helped track one of the world’s healthiest fish populations for more than 20 years, providing health reports on dozens of species.
“We don’t know yet how the oil situation will impact the fish habitat long-term,” Berrigan said. “It’s never been more important for us to be out here.”
So, while workers looked for tar balls and reporters looked for oiled wildlife, we motored outside Flatboat Pass, 22 miles through cuts and sloughs, before tying lines to, of all things, the pilings of a natural gas platform. Within 10 minutes a drum and a ladyfish were boated, tagged and released. By lunchtime we’d pulled jacks, catfish, trout and 24 redfish from the water. Most were tagged. Some were dropped into an ice chest to be filleted later.
“The fish are healthy now,” Roberts said. “The concern is the spawn. If fewer eggs survive, we’ll have fewer fish. Fewer fish, fewer eggs. It would be a downward spiral from there.”
The CCA has helped draw up plans for a fish hatchery along the Louisiana coast, something that was never needed before but might now help save a multibillion-dollar recreational fishing industry. There’s concern in the conversation, but hope in the tone.
“When the last camera is turned off,” Cresson told a congressional subcommittee in Washington, D.C., following the spill, “and when the rest of the world is no longer focused on the Gulf of Mexico, we will still be here, as we always have been, ready to do what needs to be done.”
For our first eco Awards, we reached out for a story about the oil. It never crossed our minds that the story might instead take us fishing. — R.S.