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Six months after the oil spill began, Southern Louisiana looks fine. The sun is out, the oppressive summer humidity is starting to roll away, and fishermen in the Bayou are hunting redfish, trout, and black drum. The last signs of the geyser of crude that gushed into the Gulf of Mexico for three months are the occasional sheen in open water, a few dead patches of grass on the edges of Bay Jimmy, and caravans of "Vessels of Opportunity" scouring the Gulf for signs of oil and a generous check from BP.
People are having a hard time believing it.
Every time, the tests come back negative. Nobody has ever gotten sick from oil in Gulf seafood. What Tony Hayward said in May about the "modest" impact of the spill, seems like it may, despite all the ridicule he received at the time, actually be true. But for consumers, restaurants, distributors, and even the fishermen themselves, that just seems impossible.
"You had reports of dead zones, and fish kills, and I know they blamin' it on river water," says Douglas Lafont, a shrimper from Lafourche Parish who, like most shrimpers, worked cleanup for BP. "But I don't know. I seen a lot of nasty stuff."
Some oyster beds suffered 50 percent mortality from the fresh water that officials let out to push the oil out of the marshes.
Environmentalists worry that larval shrimp may have been impacted before adults, or that oil on the sea floor has yet to work its way into the ecosystem. Consumers worry that positive reports are wishful thinking or industry spin. Fishermen, processors, and distributors worry that their BP money won't hold out until prices recover. For everyone connected to Gulf seafood, the future is hazy, and they're waiting for the other shoe to drop.
In the meantime, however, that hesitation for consumers is the greatest challenge facing Gulf seafood. Even with some docks still operating at about 30 percent of pre-spill levels, prices for shrimp have plummeted since an artificial high created by the oil spill down to $1.30 a pound for average size shrimp. And groups like the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and the Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board are doing everything they can to convince consumers that that Gulf seafood is safe—much safer, in fact, than the imports that restaurants across the country have likely replaced it with.
Oysters are the one food certain to face continuing supply issues. Some beds suffered 50 percent mortality from the fresh water that officials let out to push the oil out of the marshes, and depending on how extensive the damage is, they may not recover for years.
Greg Voisin is director of sales for oyster processor Motavit Seafoods. He has maintained his business throughout the summer with the edge he gets from automated shucking, but he's the only one of his competitors that has done so. When the government reopens the public oyster fields in November, he could face the same price drops that shrimp has already seen.
But for Louisiana seafood, these market issues aren't exactly new. Gulf seafood has been in jeopardy for years due to pressure from imports, cultural shifts, and natural disasters—for many, the oil spill is just one more thing.
I asked Lafont the last time things were "normal."
"Lord, it's been years," he said. "I know Clinton was in office. Maybe second term of Clinton?"
MORE ON GULF SEAFOOD:
John Besh: Destroying a Food Tradition
Regina Charboneau: Supporting the Fishermen
Julie Dermansky: Scenes From the Clean-Up
There's a specter hanging over Southern Louisiana, and it doesn't photograph quite as well as a storm or geyser of black oil. In the end, through all of the trials the region has faced, the gradual erosion of the delta itself could be the thing that finally puts the bayou, the swamps, the marshes, and even the cities to rest forever.
In a single-engine Cessna above Terrebone Parish, just west of New Orleans, the real state of southern Louisiana comes into stark relief. Marshes scarred with thousands of canals are slowly filling with saltwater, and the human settlements look less like towns and more like tiny islands protected by thin mud levees against the pounding waves of the Gulf.
This is a region that has taken its punches, and like Cool Hand Luke, it just keeps getting up. But the very lands they've built their homes on are being lost to erosion and saltwater intrusion.
The seafood industry tucked into the marshes will recover from the oil spill. It might take a few years, and it will claim a few livelihoods, but even the oysters and the most reticent customers will eventually come back. The reality they'll return to, however, has no $20 billion slush fund to pay the rent on a sunken home.
But Greg Voisin is an eighth-generation oysterman. His ancestors have seen bad times before.
"We're Cajun people," he says. "And we feel that if tomorrow 5,000 acres are closed, then we'll harvest on what we got."