Black Death: Will Fisheries Survive the Oil Spill?

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I grew up around fishermen, and now at Restaurant August and all six of my restaurants I use only fish and seafood from our waters: 500 pounds of shrimp and at least 100 pounds of crabmeat a day from our sweet crabs, and I sell a good 500 pounds of finfish a day, from cobia to grouper to snapper to speckled trout to redfish, flounder, and sheepshead. It's all from our waters. We haven't seen a decrease in supply yet, but next week we expect it, because of where the slick has moved: the port of Venice, Louisiana, where oil is starting to wash ashore, is a major hub of seafood in and out of the Gulf. We'll definitely see a break in supply. But what we're really worried about is all the microorganisms that rely on that marsh. The shrimp and the crabs feed off of those little microorganisms, and all of our other fisheries depend on them.

I talked to a number of shrimpers in the past couple days. Shrimp season just opened, and they're out there shrimping like mad, trying to make hay like the sun shines. But there will be a real effort to have them use their shallow-water equipment to spread whatever agents they can to mitigate the spill's effects on oyster beds. It's all hands on deck. The fishing community has been called out—and they were the first to to mobilize, from shrimpers to oystermen, and ask what they could. They've got the boats and machinery.

Luckily, landfall hasn't been verified except in a few extreme outer barrier islands. The blessing is that if things continue as they are, at least the west side of the state will be spared. We will have a supply of seafood, but that supply will be affected. In the short term our supplies will be cut in half—and that's if we're lucky. In the long term I'm afraid for the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Texas, the Florida panhandle. It's still possible for us to salvage our industry if we act swiftly and smartly—if we don't leave it up to just the Coast Guard, and if the government takes control.

But for years these fishermen have been discounted by the government. Allowing the rampant importation of sub-quality shrimp into our country was a huge slap in the face. And this disaster is another: we're acting so slowly when this has been brewing for 10 days. It took the press to tell the story that has politicians up in arms. But it's been 10 days!

I understand that it takes the government time to mobilize. But I was in the Marine Corps, and I know that if we need to we can strike heavily anywhere in the world in 24 hours. Why aren't we using that kind of enthusiasm and drive to protect our coastland? I don't think half the people in Washington have a clue of what's at stake. This is a fragile ecosystem that has had to survive so much already. We've had the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers nearly destroy nearly a third of it by dredging various canals, and there have been the aftereffects of hurricane after hurricane.

Then there's the effect of the very powerful petroleum industry, which no one has wanted to comment on. I'm not against the oil companies—they're our biggest customers (even though I'm a little tired of hearing "BP," since last I heard it was British Petroleum). But we could very well lose this entire ecosystem down here, and it would be catastrophic for the country.

These are federal waters. It's not a natural disaster, whatever I hear people say on television. It's so frustrating. The Federal government has known about this for 10 days. It should have said, "We're going to act now," and not wait for BP to take action. This is unprecedented—not a little spill from a ship. We do want to hold these companies responsible. But first and foremost, we need to protect citizens. This is much more than about birds. It's about a culture, an economy, the livelihood of thousands and thousands of people—and wetlands that have been the most concentrated source of seafood production for our entire country.

Now we're seeing some action, because politicans have started thinking about poll numbers. But now might be too late. They can't even shut off the oil going into the Gulf. Yes, it's better for it to burn up out there, 45 minutes off the coast. What they're not saying when they talk about "sweet crude," though, is the thick, gloppy, heavy crude mixed with sulfur coming up for over a mile underneath the surface of the Gulf. We don't know what the long-lasting effects are.

I'm bitter that after 10 days, government continues to fumble the football, wondering whose job it is. Saying BP is ultimately responsible is a bunch of hogwash. We can't keep waiting for disasters to happen when we know how to prevent them in the first place. Yes, we've had luck with offshore drilling. But it's just like Wall Street: we can't expect companies to police themselves.

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John Besh is the James Beard Award-winning chef of Restaurant August and five other restaurants in New Orleans, Louisiana. More

John Besh is a chef and native son dedicated to the culinary riches of southern Louisiana. At each of his six acclaimed restaurants (August, Besh Steak, Lüke, La Provence, American Sector, and Domenica) as well as in his entrepreneurial pursuits, his cookbook (My New Orleans), and his public activities, he celebrates the bounty and traditions of the region.

A former U.S. Marine, Besh has been honored by Food & Wine ("Top 10 Best New Chefs in America"), Gourmet Magazine ("Guide to America's Best Restaurants"), Food Arts (Silver Spoon Award), and the James Beard Foundation (Best Chef - Southeast). John Besh is a frequent guest chef on NBC's Today Show and has appeared on top programs on the Food Network and the Sundance Channel.

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