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Summer of Tears: A Fisherman's Story

Al Huang

Posted May 26, 2010

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Michael Roberts from Louisiana Bayoukeeper wrote this (see below) heartbreaking account on the BP oil spill's impact on local fishermen in Barataria Bay, LA after he surveyed the oil spill by boat this past Sunday.

Two weeks ago, NRDC President Frances Beinecke and staff met with Michael's wife, Tracy Kuhns, to tour the oyster beds in Grand Bayou near Baratraria Bay.

Michael's first-hand account of how the oil spill is impacting the way of life and health of fishermen underscores the immediate need for first-responder resources - health clinics, personal protective equipment (respirators), air monitoring, and economic assistance - for fishermen all over the gulf coast region, who are the frontline communities to this disaster.

Summer of Tears

By Michael Roberts, Louisiana Bayoukeeper, Inc.

The boat ride, out, from Lafitte, Louisiana, Sunday, May 23, 2010, to our fishing grounds was not unlike any other I have taken in my life, as a commercial fisherman from this area. I have made the trip thousands of times in my 35 plus years shrimping and crabbing. A warm breeze in my face, it is a typical Louisiana summer day. 3 people were with me, my wife Tracy, Ian Wren, and our grandson, Scottie. I was soon to find out, how untypical this day would become for me, not unlike a death in the family. This was going to be a very bad day for me.

As we neared Barataria Bay, the smell of crude oil in the air was getting thicker and thicker. An event that always brought joy to me all of my life, the approach of the fishing grounds, was slowly turning into a nightmare. As we entered Grand Lake, the name we fishermen call Barataria Bay, I started to see a weird, glassy look to the water and soon it became evident to me, there was oil sheen as far as I could see. Soon, we were running past patches of red oil floating on top of the water. As we headed farther south, we saw at least a dozen boats, in the distance, which appeared to be shrimping. We soon realized that shrimping was not what they were doing at all, but instead they were towing oil booms in a desperate attempt to corral oil that was pouring into our fishing grounds. We stopped to talk to one of the fishermen, towing a boom, a young fisherman from Lafitte. What he told me floored me. He said, “What we are seeing in the lake, the oil, was but a drop in the bucket of what was to come.” He had just come out of the Gulf of Mexico and he said, “It was unbelievable, the oil runs for miles and miles and was headed for shore and into our fishing grounds”. I thought, what I had already seen in the lake was enough for a lifetime. We talked a little while longer, gave the fisherman some protective respirators and were soon on our way. As we left the small fleet of boats, working feverishly, trying to corral the oil, I became overwhelmed with what I just saw.

I am not real emotional and consider myself a pretty tough guy. You have to be to survive as a fisherman. As I left that scene, tears flowed down my face and I cried. Something I have not done in a long time, but would do several more times that day. I tried not to let my grandson, Scottie, see me crying. I didn’t think he would understand, I was crying for his stolen future. None of this will be the same, for decades to come. The damage is going to be immense and I do not think our lives here in South Louisiana will ever be the same. He is too young to understand. He has an intense love for our way of life here. He wants to be a fisherman and a fishing guide when he gets older. It is what he is, it is in his soul, and it is his culture. How can I tell him that this may never come to pass now, now that everything he loves in the outdoors may soon be destroyed by this massive oil spill? How do we tell this to a generation of young people, in south Louisiana who live and breathe this bayou life that they love so much, could soon be gone? How do we tell them? All this raced through my mind and I wept.

We continued farther south towards Grand Terre Island. We approached Bird Island. The real name is Queen Bess Island, but we call it Bird Island, because it is always full of birds. It is a rookery, a nesting island for thousands of birds, pelicans, terns, gulls etc. As we got closer, we saw that protective boom had been placed around about two thirds of the island. It was obvious to me, that oil had gone under the boom and was fouling the shore and had undoubtedly oil some birds. My God. We would see this scene again at Cat Island and other unnamed islands that day. We continued on to the east past Coup Abel Pass and more shrimp boats trying to contain some of the oil on the surface. We arrived at 4 Bayou Pass to see more boats working on the same thing. We beached the boat and decided to look at the beach between the passes.

The scene was one of horror to me. There was thick red oil on the entire stretch of beach, with oil continuing to wash ashore. The water looked to be infused with red oil, with billions of, what appeared to be, red pebbles of oil washing up on the beach with every wave. The red oil pebbles, at the high tide mark on the beach were melting into pools of red goo in the hot Louisiana sun. The damage was overwhelming. There was nobody there to clean it up. It would take an army to do it. Like so much of coastal Louisiana, it was accessible only by boat. Will it ever be cleaned up? I don’t know. Tears again. We soon left that beach and started to head home.

We took a little different route home, staying a little farther to the east side of Barataria Bay. As we approached the northern end of the bay, we ran into another raft of oil that appeared to be covering many square miles. It was only a mile from the interior bayous on the north side of Barataria Bay. My God. No boats were towing boom in this area. I do not think anyone even knew it was there. A little bet farther north, we saw some shrimp boats with boom, on anchor, waiting to try and protect Bayou St. Dennis from the oil. I alerted them of the approaching oil. I hope they were able to control it before it reached the bayou. We left them and started to head in.

My heart never felt so heavy, as on that ride in. I thought to myself, this is the most I’ve cried since I was a baby. In fact I am sure it was. This will be a summer of tears for a lot of us in south Louisiana.


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George BoudreauxMay 27 2010 09:28 AM

Comment removed

BushyWhackMay 27 2010 09:44 AM

Comment removed.

Annie BryceMay 27 2010 09:45 AM

My heart simply breaks for you, your way of life, and the wildlife that will be affected by this tragedy. No words can described how utterly depressed this effects of this oil spill make me, and I am not even a resident of the area. I live in Washington state. I'm at a loss to express to you how sorry I feel right now.

Laura M.May 27 2010 09:47 AM

I am so saddened by this account. The scene you described is a crime scene, pure and simple, and I sincerely hope that there is an investigation and restitution for all those affected by the oil spill, in ways many of us cannot imagine. Best of luck to all of you down there, I hope your estimation of decades of ruin are wrong, but I fear you are right.

As a nation, whatever our politics, we can all get behind better regulation of the big oil companies and complete transparency of those agencies charged with their oversight.

Christopher ArmourMay 27 2010 10:31 AM

Comment removed

Will@NRDCMay 27 2010 10:38 AM

Please keep the conversation civil. This tragedy is affecting everyone in the gulf region.

Dr. SamMay 27 2010 10:44 AM


I feel so bad that our planet is being so blatantly polluted by greedy money-hungry, greed-infested multinational corporations such as BP, Transocean and Halliburton. I feel for the affected areas in the Gulf of Mexico—for fishermen who have lost their livelihood, for the tourist industry there, and for millions of others who have no clue about how they are going to survive in the coming months with no money coming in for food, for paying their rent or mortgage, and for looking after their children. But there are others—those who just a few short months back were shouting to us the SUPPOSEDLY redemptive slogan of DRILL, BABY, DRILL and GET GOVERNMENT OUT OF MY LIFE mantra. They include the Gov. of Louisiana Bobby Gindal, and of course the irrepressible Sarah Palin. These same folks are now shouting a different jingle: “Where is the federal government?; Where is Obama?” Funny, isn’t it? It is almost like they are incapable of recognizing their high end doubletalk and volteface. And their appetite for oil is still as voracious as ever, totally uncaring about the real consequences of their demagogic politics. For these egotistical folks—more appropriately inhuman abstractions—it is simply a matter of you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. What do they care about human suffering?
Dr. Sam

gmoneyMay 27 2010 11:15 AM

This is an outrage of the first degree. I live in California and I could not imagine that happening here, but it very well could. Deregulation has ruined this country and unless we get back to the rule of law there will be no future left for any us. Secondly, the two party system is selling us all out and if you care one iota about this planet i.e. the environment, clean air and water, all of us must work to elect true progressives. I for one want my representatives edgy, to call a spade a spade and challenge the status quo and bloodsuckers on their B.S. I have given the system the benefit of the doubt and look where it has gotten me. We cannot afford to turn a blind eye anymore, and we have to root these evil money grubbing, war loving, planet hating maggots out. Peace...

Steve ParisMay 27 2010 11:29 AM

Brace yourselves, and be prepared for twenty years and more, of pain, anger, frustration, waiting, moving on and more tears. As an Alaska fisherman who came into the business after Exxon Valdez, my family and friends were near ground zero. Hundreds of thousands of dollars invested vanished, a way of life in some areas all but disappeared. Hope for compensation all but faded away after years of litigation when one white mans opinion within the supreme court, based on a law over 100 years old, reduced punitive damages in the case.

Steve ParisMay 27 2010 11:48 AM

We still wait for compensation. Any healing for the Gulf and for the people who live there is a long way off. The damage done is only beginning. This BP disaster seems beyond Exxon's. Many more people are going to feel the damage. The environment seems likely to take a much bigger hit. The marshes, the fish and wildlife are to be altered forever, one man referred to the oil as "chocolate milk" that will break up naturally. The oil companies shift blame, lawyers begin to flow into town, as tears begin to flow from everyone that cares about the Gulf. Its gonna be forever.

cassandraweptMay 27 2010 03:00 PM

Hey, my cousin has a fishing boat in Alaska. He votes Republican. Don't complain to me. MMS personnel were using lobbyist prostitutes and taking all kinds of graft and payola during the Republican administration and they continued during the Democratic administration. They all should have been fired and the companies should have been punished. But they weren't. You guys, you fishermen, weren't watching out for your own interests.
Heck, drink some more bottled water and continue your corporate master's chemical castration. Castrati don't fight like men.

Steve ParisMay 27 2010 03:31 PM

Hey CWept, I can't complain to guys like you. You think for a second fisherman, Alaskans weren't jumping up and down screamin' watch out. Single hulled tankers plying the waters. Exxon had in charge of one of these a known alcoholic known to be off the wagon. But go do battle with the likes of big oil. Not a fair battle. Now BP. Please help figure out what to do next, somehow we're all part of this. Regulations and accountability maybe. Alaskans and the ecosystem got spanked real bad. The entire gulf system is in line for perhaps economic and environmental destruction we haven't seen. We'll see. So perhaps I'm whining a bit, But more than that I'm crying for all that may be coming to the gulf.

Paul HutchersonMay 27 2010 04:48 PM

This is one of the saddest articles I've ever read. My heart goes out to the folks in the Gulf Coast region. I really do hope that BP, Haliburton and Trans Ocean pay the price for such utter negligence. Greed and profits have cost this country so much. May God Bless and continue to protect all those affected by this tragedy.

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