Returning from the Black Bay off the coast of Louisiana, Arthur Etienne Jr. sits on sacks of oysters he helped harvest. What they caught in two days, he says, used to be caught in one morning.
“The oystermen in this area are the reason these towns exist,” Thomas says. “And if disasters such as the BP oil spill destroy their oyster beds, their absence will be the reason these communities finally dissolve.”
Louisiana traditionally produces 40% of the nation’s oysters, more than any other state, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
By the time the ruptured Deepwater Horizon well was declared dead on September 19, 2010, an estimated 200 million gallons of crude oil had been released into the Gulf of Mexico.
Two years later, Thomas says the coastal communities are still dealing with the consequences. He began planning his trip to the region while attending graduate school at Ohio University. “I felt as if I needed to be there,” he says.
Oystermen in Plaquemines Parish hadn’t fully recovered from the effects of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the area in 2005, when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded.
After oil started gushing a mile beneath the ocean surface, the state of Louisiana diverted freshwater from the Mississippi River to push back against the oil and keep it off the fragile coast.
The move may have saved coastal marshes, but it also killed colonies of oysters, which rely on a particular salinity level in order to survive.
“This is an area familiar with the life cycle of rebuilding that accompanies hurricanes,” Thomas says. “Something that makes it all the more disappointing that these communities have also had to handle man-made disasters.”
Oysters that were once plentiful off the East Bank have failed to return to the levels they were at before the oil spill. The harvest in Louisiana in 2010 was down 50%, compared with an average of the four previous years, according to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries.
While the market may rebound, Thomas worries it will happen too late for these men. Many of them come from families that have earned a living on the water for generations. Now they fear they will be forced to relocate or find new work.
Brian Barthelemy, one of the boat captains, has been harvesting oysters since he was a teenager. He said he received small payments from BP, but nothing close to what he has lost in income.
“As these oystermen are attempting to get their fair share of losses, lost in a sea of paperwork, bills are perpetually accumulating,” Thomas says.
The latest disaster to strike Plaquemines Parish came when Hurricane Isaac made landfall last month. A mandatory evacuation was ordered on the East Bank, and as many as 800 homes suffered significant water damage.
The parish, just southeast of New Orleans, appeared to be the epicenter of the storm’s wrath. As recovery efforts continue, Thomas hopes to revisit the area in the coming months.
“Bottom line is that I want people to recognize that any disaster, natural or man-made, has far greater consequences than the initially reported news,” Thomas says. “And this historic community on the East Bank … is now feeling those consequences.”
- Brett Roegiers, CNN