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Louisiana’s Oyster Industry Crippled by Oil Spill

June 2, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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As part of continuing coverage of the oil crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, Spencer Michels reports on how one Louisiana parish is coping with the oil spill and the growing threat to its oyster industry.
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JIM LEHRER: The fallout from longtime industries and many livelihoods on the Gulf Coast is mounting.

Tonight, “NewsHour” correspondent Spencer Michels reports on how this is playing out in a small town on the Louisiana coast.

SPENCER MICHELS: To get to Pointe a la Hache in Plaquemines Parish from the main road running south to New Orleans, you have to cross the Mississippi River on a ferryboat that leaves the dock four times an hour for the short trip.

The economy of this predominantly African-American enclave depends on boats that harvest oysters from the coastal waters. Because of fears that oil will soon hit the area, the government opened the season early, and these lucky fishermen came back with a huge load.

Most of the deck hands, like Edwardo Mendez, come from Mexico.

So — so, these are — have just been caught. These are oysters, right?

EDWARDO MENDEZ, Deck Hand: Yes.

SPENCER MICHELS: So, what about the oil? Is there any oil in these oysters?

EDWARDO MENDEZ: These ones have no oil.

SPENCER MICHELS: No oil? They weren’t in…

EDWARDO MENDEZ: Fishing good one. Good. No oil.

SPENCER MICHELS: But since they can’t bank on the oil staying away, and they’re scared that any hurricane could wreak havoc on the oyster beds, oystermen are working at a feverish pace.

Claude Duplessis has been harvesting oysters for all his adult life. He was among a group of Pointe a la Hache residents who gathered at the Saint Thomas Catholic Church to talk about how the oil spill has been affecting business.

CLAUDE DUPLESSIS, oysterman: If the oil comes in, they’re destroyed, not just temporarily, but for a long, long time.

SPENCER MICHELS: Really?

CLAUDE DUPLESSIS: Yes. Yes, sir. Oil has a real adverse effect on oyster reefs. The oyster — in the reproduction stage, the oysters that — put out a milk that’s what we call spat. And this spat swims around in the water until it find a clean, hard surface to attach itself to, and it grows from there. Now, if the oil coats the shell and the culch, then the spat can’t stick. And you can — this can — continues for years.

SPENCER MICHELS: Byron Encalade is president of the Louisiana Oysters Association. He testified before the House Judiciary Committee last Thursday, and said the oil disaster, much like Katrina, has been decades in the making.

BYRON ENCALADE, president, Louisiana Oysters Association: Once again, we find ourselves crippled by a disaster we didn’t create.

SPENCER MICHELS: Most of the residents in Plaquemines Parish are pushing hard for the government to quickly construct barrier sand islands to buffer Louisiana’s wetlands against storms and oil spills, and to replace islands that were already disappearing at an alarming rate.

BYRON ENCALADE: Without those islands out there, we’re not protected from the hurricanes. Instead of wasting all this money on these projects that the Corps are doing, we would be in better shape now. We could have protected the inner marshland from this oil.

But you have destroyed millions and millions of dollars worth of oysters that this community survived on for many a hundred year.

SPENCER MICHELS: But these fishermen have other concerns as well, though their rhetoric has calmed down in the 44 days since the BP well exploded.

I’m not hearing real serious anger from anybody here. You sound like you sort of understand the situation. Is that wrong?

REV. PERCY GRIFFIN, Louisiana: We could show serious ache anger. We could use some vulgarity. We could get hostility, but that’s not going to solve the problem. And all it’s going to do is aggravate us, even more than what we are aggravated.

SPENCER MICHELS: Some fishermen have received lump-sum payments from BP, but they say it isn’t enough, and they have met with attorneys and are planning to sue for lost income.

Gary Barthelemy is another concerned fisherman.

GARY BARTHELEMY, fisherman: They’re supposed to send us fares for time we couldn’t work, you know? And, so far, we have only gotten one check so far, you know? And the oil has been out here like 40-something days, you know? And $5,000, it is not enough for a man to feed his family, or to live off, taken care of his family with.

SPENCER MICHELS: While the fishermen worry over how to get compensation for their own losses, the federal government is investigating possible criminal violations of the Endangered Species, the Clean Water, and the Oil Pollution Acts.

Meanwhile, in Plaquemines Parish along the Mississippi, what is at stake is a way of life.

Leander Young has spent his life on the banks of the Mississippi River. He now works as an engineer on the ferryboat.

LEANDER YOUNG, engineer: Been working on this river pretty much, between the beds and the river, all my life.

SPENCER MICHELS: Now, what do you think is going to happen because of this oil spill?

LEANDER YOUNG: It’s really going to affect the marshland, the fishing industry, the shrimps, the crab, the oysters. That’s — mostly, the people down here, that’s their livelihood, and it’s going to affect them for some years to come.

SPENCER MICHELS: So far, there has been no oil directly in the Mississippi, but that is scant encouragement for the folks in Pointe a la Hache, Plaquemines Parish, and the rest of the Gulf Coast, people who are wrestling with a problem that goes far beyond their local concerns.