The Story From South Louisiana

Getting the inside story from the deepest reaches of the Gulf Coast.

The Story From South Louisiana

Photos by Cy Cyr
Text by Robert Stephens Hot and sticky as it is in the bayou of southern Louisiana, you can understand why tempers boiled over in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon explosion last spring. For more than three months we heard the stewing. Thing is, most of the blaming for the oil spill in the Gulf came from outsiders, many of them with microphones and makeup. Folks from the deepest reaches of the Gulf Coast — the would-be volunteers and outdoorsmen — were rarely heard. We have to admit that our initial motive for this photo essay was to find stories of unsung heroes. You know, boaters like us, but maybe wearing rubber boots and petrol-slickened gloves. After more than a dozen phone calls to marine industry contacts along Louisiana’s coast, we got what we were looking for from David Cresson, executive director of the state’s chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association (CCA): an invitation. And so we drove to the heart of it all, ready to have our eyes peeled to the inside story.
Cy Cyr

Venice Marina

Louisiana’s moniker of “Sportsman’s Paradise” finds its meaning here in Venice, near the convergence of the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, where game fish thrive in a nutrient-heavy estuary. This is where you’d find any immediate devastation from the BP oil spill. The only evidence of a problem on our arrival was a constant flock of airboats carrying orange-vested workers from the marina to shallow areas, where they searched for splotches of oil. “The media coverage drew quick attention to the potential for big problems, which was necessary,” says Cresson. “But the way it was reported negatively impacted our economy as much as anything.”Cy Cyr

Writing on the Walls

Normally a spinning hub for thirsty commercial fishermen and recreational anglers, CrawGators Bar & Grill began to rely solely on customers from the work fleets motoring in and out of Venice. Tourism in southern Louisiana is totally marine-based and feeds the state’s economy through fishing licenses and tackle sales. Those revenues were off more than 50 percent and stayed that way for weeks even when the coast was deemed clear.Cy Cyr

The In-Between Phase

At first light we paused in a cut, 10 miles out of Venice and another 10 miles from the fishing grounds, to snap (from left) CCA volunteers Sam Elliott and Paul Roberts, fish-tag program coordinator Tony Berrigan and CCA executive director David Cresson. This type of thick marsh protects the Louisiana shore and provides cover for the fingerlings of a world-famous fishery. Although we found no oil and no distressed wildlife, there will be serious questions about the health of the spawns for at least the next two years.Cy Cyr

Moving with Purpose

Bay boats are the rides of choice to traverse passages as shallow as four feet before heading offshore. Cresson (right) told us he could take us to where work crews were looking for remnants of oil. “But to be honest,” he says, “our focus is not the doom and gloom. We’re in the middle of this making sure the habitat remains healthy. Our members would be ready with shovels and buckets if that were necessary, but it isn’t. From the very beginning we wanted to focus on the fishery instead of pointing fingers and fussing.”Cy Cyr

Fish-Oil

Entering the Gulf outside Flatboat Pass brought into view a horizon spiked with structures. “Are those little islands out there?” asked photographer Cy Cyr. No. What looked like stilt homes were actually oil and natural gas platforms, some no bigger than utility sheds and others the size of apartment buildings. Hundreds of them are scattered throughout this wedge of the Gulf. And among them we found seabirds and fish in perpetual feeding frenzies. “Nobody down here wants to see a moratorium on oil drilling, nobody,” says Tony Berrigan, shown here trying to run down a crevalle jack. “Oil and fish, that’s what employs all of southern Louisiana. They feed off each other. We can’t afford to lose either one.”Cy Cyr

Shadowy Figures

The oil platforms might not be the prettiest sights around Louisiana’s Gulf Coast, but they are merely extensions of land-based operations that extend from just south of New Orleans all the way to Venice and beyond. It is rare to find anyone within two hours who will complain about the rigs. Recreational fishermen like Sam Elliott (weighing a jack before tagging and releasing it) gravitate to the pilings, knowing that the game fish do the same. “You don’t hear complaining among fishermen, even now,” Elliott says about the presence of the oil business.Cy Cyr

Marked Territory

While tied up to this rig in the quiet of early morning, the only sound we heard was natural gas hissing through the pipes. The steady stream of gas flow was interrupted every few minutes by the splashes of ladyfish, trout and redfish being reeled in. After tagging one of the redfish and letting it go, Paul Roberts fills in data on the fish location, bait used and its general well-being. Of the 40-some fish caught, none showed any signs of ill health. “The real spirit of Louisianans is not just to be out fishing,” Cresson says, “but it’s their willingness to help.”Cy Cyr

Sideline Activity

A few hundred yards from the fishing action, cleanup workers were seen behind the boom and absorbers checking for oil that might have washed in. More than 6,000 boats and captains signed up during spring and summer for response jobs that paid $45 an hour and another $800 a day for the use of their boats. Cresson says he called Gov. Bobby Jindal’s office in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, offering however many volunteers and boats would be needed. “We could have had a thousand members and their boats out there, but they didn’t need that from us,” Cresson says. Elliott took a four-hour Hazmat course in 45 minutes in hopes of volunteering. “Then I found out all the workers were being paid. I saw charter guys and commercial guys standing there. I couldn’t take one of those cleanup jobs, knowing they were losing their livelihood because of the fishing ban.”Cy Cyr

Message in a Redfish

Local fishermen are still upset with national news reports that cast an apocalyptic tone over Louisiana’s coast during the summer. They’re still fighting a negative perception. One video clip broadcast around the world showed redfish schooling and busting the surface, with an anchorperson saying they were “gasping for air” because the oil was depleting oxygen from the water. “They were feeding behind a shrimp boat,” says Roberts, forcing an incredulous laugh. On this outing we caught two dozen reds, most of them tagged and released, some tossed over ice and none showing any signs of distress.Cy Cyr

Accentuating the Positive

To a new visitor, fishing in an oil rig-scape might seem surreal. But the exploration, drilling and transporting of oil hasn’t negatively impacted the habitat around “the fishing capital of the world” and might in fact help the fishery by providing structure. Yes, a guide can take you to patches of oil from the spill if you want. Elliott (right) was surrounded by photographers who wanted exactly that, pictures of oil, 10 days after the explosion, and they asked him to lead them to it. That kind of media coverage has crippled an already hobbled coastal economy. “People in our state are very in tune with the outdoors,” says Roberts (left). “They know the importance of what’s happening out here and are willing to do whatever it takes to keep the estuaries prolific. We don’t know what they’ll look like down the road, but everyone needs to know that the fish are OK, for now.”Cy Cyr