A fisherman casts for his future in the polluted marsh
JJ Creppel stood in his baseball cap and white rubber boots and threw his small net into the muddy bayou. Pickups and cars zoomed nearby along Hwy 23, the only road connecting oil-wrecked lower Plaquemines Parish to the wealthier suburbs of New Orleans. Creppel hauled in the net and flung the small catch onto the boat launch. A few baby pogies flopped on the gravel, among them a few small shrimp.
“Not much here,” Creppel said as he picked them up and flung them into a bucket. “The small ones I can give to the cat and the rest I’ll use as bait to try to catch some bigger fish. A year ago before the spill I would get 15 to 20 shrimp per throw here, but now just 3 to 4 if I’m lucky.”
On his next throw, he got none.
At 57, Creppel, a member of the United Houma Tribe, is a veteran fisherman of these waters. He was born here in a small medical clinic by water tower of Buras, the former residential center of this area. But five years ago, Katrina paid a visit and 25 feet of water poured over the levies and tore through the town streets, ripping down houses, punching holes the size of fire trucks through brick buildings and flinging refrigerators and cars into treetops. Buras struggled to recover. But when the BP oil disaster struck in April, this famous fishing community was delivered a near mortal blow.
It nearly killed Creppel. After watching the BP oil well spew millions of gallons of Louisiana crude a day into his Gulf fishing grounds, Creppel says became so stressed out he had a heart attack and landed in the hospital. By the time he got out he was saddled with medical bills and couldn’t afford to get his boat fixed. That cut him off from the only real income he had. Now what fish he and his family eat comes from what he can catch along the banks. And it isn’t much.
All photos by Rocky Kistner/NRDC
Creppel and his fiancé live in a small 25 ft trailer on a large piece of property he rents for $100 a month. He laid a blue plastic tarp over the top of the trailer to plug the leaks. Cement blocks on top hold it in place. Halloween decorations already are up on the windows. He has 16 grandkids and now two of them are sleeping with them in the tiny trailer. They have a few goats, chickens and ducks that help provide milk and eggs and some meat, but the fishing they relied on for their steady diet and income is mostly gone.
Creppel says all of the $12,000 he’s received from BP so far was spent on his family and his medical bills. His fiancé no longer gets any BP money, even though she worked as a deck hand. He doesn’t know how much he will get from BP, but he knows until he gets his boat going he won’t be able to make ends meet. Even if he does get out on the water, the market for Gulf seafood has cratered. There’s not much demand for fish tainted by the worst US offshore oil spill in history. You can’t pay for boat fuel getting $2 a pound for large shrimp and 60 cents for the small. Creppel says he knows fishermen who’ve pulled up oil in shrimp and crabs. But he also knows some spots where the fishing is safe, areas that weren’t impacted by oil. Right now he can’t get to them without a boat, and no one is doing much to help.
Creppel never got cleanup work from BP and neither did many of his friends. He believes a lot of it has to do with politics, and he says BP didn’t want to hire locals who would complain about the way it handled things. Many fishermen claim oil was dropped to the bottom by chemical dispersants when it could have been cleaned up on the surface, and they’ve seen workers sitting idly in boats when tar ball rolled into the marshes.
Instead fishermen's livelihoods were shut down and they now wait anxiously for checks that sometimes fail to arrive. For independent men who live off the land and sea, it’s been a humiliating and frustrating experience, one that surely will get worse this winter as the cleanup shuts down and the fishing becomes even more limited. “I’ve been here all my life,” Creppel says, “and I know most of the fishing community here. I’d say out of 2,000 fishermen 60 to 70 percent are having a hard time getting by. We all try to help each other but it’s hard when we’re all in the same situation.”
Creppel stands in the yard in front of his trailer, mending rips and tears in fishing nets for extra income. In a normal year, he fixes 40 nets at up to $800 a pop. This year he’s gotten just two. He and his family have had to go to a food bank nearby to get handouts, but those have dwindled to nothing, he says. “They didn’t give out much anyway, and I know some of it ended up being sold to BP workers.”
Charities in the area report their food programs are already out of money trying to feed people in Plaquemines. Catholic Charities is trying to fundraise for food assistance, but it’s been a difficult task. Many foundations and most Americans believe BP is paying for all this. But it’s not and it’s under no obligation to. Emergency federal assistance programs such as FEMA are not involved in this disaster. Many fishermen, experts say, are living in poverty conditions and not getting the assistance they need. Some are functionally illiterate, making it harder to understand the complex claims process. Even getting access to food stamps is difficult.
Creppel knows all this. But right now he’s thinking about how to survive this winter. A friend said he’d give him a shotgun so he can shoot rabbits and birds, and he’s hoping the shark season will be a good one so he can haul in his 33 a day limit to help pull him out of debt. But he’s not sure the sharks will be there. He knows some his favorite catfishing areas near the mouth of the Mississippi have already been ruined by oil. Drum fish out in the Gulf are probably gone too, he believes.
It’s a gloomy situation and it probably will get worse, as most oil disasters show. Money will get tighter as BP pulls out of the cleanup and focuses its efforts on legal battles over fines and claims. No one here expects BP to shower non-profits and aid groups with money. They have other fish to fry. The only funding that will stay constant or go up, some say, is BP’s PR and advertising budget, now over $100 million after the blowout.
Moving is not an option now, Creppel says. “A lot of people here are older like me. We can’t just pick up and move. I have my roots here and my grandkids. We have to stay here and try to make it.”
As Creppel walks through his yard, a young puppy yaps from inside the trailer. Creppel retrieves the young pup and cradles him in his arms, his weathered face smiling in the Louisiana sunshine, forgetting his desperate situation. Most Americans have no idea families like his are struggling down here, living off the land battered by monstrous storms. He and generations before him are survivors. But for fishermen like Creppel, the oil industry is too powerful to fight. It’s poisoned his waters and forced self-reliant families like his to seek poverty assistance. The oil wells will be there forever, but what about the marshes and bounty of the sea?
That’s a question that worries men like Creppel. Because without a healthy Gulf, his grandkids may never know the life he’s lived. His seafaring lifestyle could be relegated to the family albums of time. And that will be a national tragedy for us all.
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