In our continued coverage of the BP oil spill, disaster clean up companies have uncovered more questions than answers. Not surprising, since we legitimately have no precedent for such a wide-scale man-made disaster in any body of water on the planet.
Three years later, questions continue to emerge, as nebulous and murky as the balls of tar we still see popping up along our shores and coastal waters. One of the most prominent questions concerning the spill’s impact on our unique and already delicate coastal environment is that of its effect on our fishing industry, and this question, like so many others, seems to have no definite answer at this time.
Indeed, there are several seemingly valid answers, but they all depend on who you ask and when, and under which motives they have for responding. As a state, we of course feel compelled to spread the message that the Coast is fine and that tourists should come and visit, eat our food and enjoy our facilities, while at the same time we are in no hurry to let BP off the hook from paying any more fines and fees involved in cleaning up the place. Despite these seemingly contradictory motives and messages, the truth is that the facts themselves are difficult to interpret, and the true impact of the spill on our environment remains unclear.
The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has released statistics which show that the total number of pounds for most commercial species of seafood and fish being brought in are currently higher than the rates during the year of the spill. However, we lack the sufficient pre-spill data to confidently state that this is entirely due to the spill, as there are so many other climate and regulatory factors that influence the rates for each season, and the overall increase is not a reflection of the individual areas in which a rising trend was not the case.
According to the official numbers, shrimpers in Louisiana as a whole harvested 78 million pounds of product the year before the spill, 56 million the year of the spill, and 70 million last year, with an overall pre-spill average of about 68 million pounds per year. But there are lifelong shrimpers in Terrebonne Parish, some with over 30 years of experience in the industry, who say that this season is the worst they have EVER seen.
In some cases and in some well-established markets, boats are currently pulling in about half of their usual amount of product, and areas directly affected by the spill have clearly seen less of a recovery since the spill than other shrimpers throughout the state. Shrimpers in Barataria Bay who harvested a total of 18 million pounds in 2009 only reached 14.7 in 2010, and that number dropped even further to 11 million in 2011, with only a slight increase to 12 million in 2012.
Although the 2012 numbers are 12 percent lower than the pre-spill average, they have still not reached the all-time lows created by Hurricanes Lili and Katrina in 2002 and 2005. However, storms have tended to be great for business in the following years, since they stir up the sand and release more food for the shrimp, a process that shrimpers may liken to a farmer plowing his fields. Harvests in 2006, for example, were double that of the year before, and likewise in the years following other large storms.
Although the facts remain unclear, the shrimp industry should be a great model to look at as a baseline representation of the oil spill’s effects, since they migrate in and out of the affected bays and the Gulf during their life span, are used to being exposed to different environments, temperatures and salinity levels, and are at the bottom of the coastal commercial food chain. But less boats are going out this year as a result of the declining yields in some areas, and new fishing regulations may also be affecting the ecosystem in more ways than we think.
Since the state passed a ban on commercial fishery gill nets and required turtle exclusions to be fitted to each fisherman’s nets, there has been an explosion of finfish, which equates to a higher than unusual amount of predators for the shrimp, and likewise, less shrimp for the shrimpers. Even with the official release of the numbers for this year’s harvest, the presence of so many other contributing factors and discontinuities throughout the industry seem to suggest that we will never really know what this year would have been like if the spill never happened. Written by Nathan Folse.