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04.17.11

The Gulf of Mexico's Seafood Rebirth a Year After the BP Oil Spill

One year after the BP oil disaster, marine life is thriving in the Gulf of Mexico and fishermen and state officials are optimistic about the summer season. But locals still battling health problems are angry at the oil giant's failure to meet its commitments, Rick Outzen reports.

The largest man-made environmental disaster in U.S. history, struck the Gulf Coast on April 20, 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded nearly 50 miles off the Louisiana shore, costing 11 men their lives. It would be September 19 before the spill was completely stopped, and U.S. government data show that 4.9 million barrels of oil leaked before the well was capped. At the time, many feared one of the richest ecosystems in the world, the Gulf of Mexico, would take decades to recover.

But a year on, predictions that the Gulf would become a dead sea have proven premature. Seafood in the region is thriving as the first anniversary of the explosion approaches. Commercial-fishing and charter-boat captains from Galveston, Texas, to Apalachicola Bay, Florida, are optimistic that their businesses will have a great summer after six years of battling hurricanes Ivan, Dennis and Katrina—and the spill.

Scientific research is giving Gulf seafood a clean bill of health. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials have unequivocally declared that any traces of oil in more than 40 species of marine life is 100 to 1,000 times below the level of concern set by a team of scientists from the FDA, NOAA, EPA and all five Gulf states.

“The seafood has been analyzed, examined, observed, and scientifically tested from every possible angle,” said Chris Nelson, vice president of Bon Secour Fisheries, Inc., in Bon Secour,  Alabama. “And every credible source that I can find has told me that our seafood is safe.”

Nelson grew up working on weekends and during the summer at his family’s business, which started in 1896. He has a master’s in marine environmental sciences, and was employed as a project coordinator with the National Fisheries Institute in Washington before returning to Bon Secour. He feels good about 2011.

“I look for a piece of wood to knock on every time I tell somebody that we seem to be doing okay right now.”

He said fears of contamination creeping into the food source have been unrealized to date, but warned that it’s too soon to know about any latent effects on the reproductive ability of “these different critters that we catch and how it might impact my ability to produce seafood.”

“This is a completely unprecedented event and we’re very early in the recovery process,” Nelson told The Daily Beast. “We’re all holding our breath. I look for a piece of wood to knock on every time I tell somebody that we seem to be doing OK right now.”

But this doesn’t mean everyone is pleased with BP, which took responsibility for the oil-spill recovery. The oil giant is being widely criticized by state officials and the fishing industry for its failure to fund marine restoration as promised, its handling of the BP Vessels of Opportunity program, which was to help support the fishermen financially hurt by the disaster, and the BP claims process.

In good times, Louisiana's rich coastal waters produce 13 million pounds of oysters annually. Last year, only 6.6 million pounds were harvested. “Only five times since 1950 have we harvested less than 7 million pounds,” said Olivia Watkins, executive media adviser at the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

On Friday , the department held a press conference to highlight BP's failure to follow through on emergency restoration in the oyster beds. The state was committing an additional $2 million in funding for a cultch plant (the material, such as concrete or limestone, to which the oysters attach), which brought the total state funds allocated to restoration projects for the oyster industry to $4 million. BP has committed to providing $15 million for improvements to oyster grounds, but has yet to fork over the money.

“People are very frustrated with BP’s reluctance to really step out and pay for the cultch plant that they initially said they were going to pay for in conversations with us,” said Watkins.

It’s time for BP to start acting like that responsible party it has proclaimed in its print, radio and television ads, Randy Pausina, assistant secretary in the wildlife department, said at the press conference. "While BP is busy spending millions on advertising to prove that they are following through on their promise to make the oyster industry and all of our coastal fisheries whole, they have neglected to follow through on numerous projects that could have helped our oyster men and women get back to work," he said.

Both commercial fishermen and the charter-boat captains have lingering resentments about how BP treated them in the weeks and months following the explosion. The Vessels of Opportunity program, which helped locate oil offshore and deploy booms, was filled with pleasure boats, including a double-decker party barge with only one motor, while those vessels most hurt by the disaster sat idle.

Buddy Rogers, who has owned and operated dive and charter boats on Pensacola Beach since 1986, was part of the program for only five weeks. “The Vessel of Opportunity program was a lot of good money that went to some people that didn’t deserve it,” he said. “One of my buddies has an air-conditioning business. He stopped it to run his boat. Then he turned around and filed a claim with BP because his air conditioning business had suffered. He got money for that, too.”

For Mark Stewart, who owns two oyster boats and two shrimp boats based on the Mississippi coast, the problem wasn’t getting in the program, but being reimbursed for his labor, and decontamination work. He says BP still owes him $15,000 for two deckhands and another $20,000 for decontamination and repainting of his boat.

Health is a bigger concern for Stewart and his fellow boat captains who worked in the oil after it had been treated with dispersants. The Louisiana Department of Health has reported 415 spill-related health complaints, of which 329 came from workers, with the most common reported symptoms being dizziness, nausea, and respiratory issues. Alabama officials have reported at least 272 cases related to oil exposure.

Stewarts says he and his fellow captains have been dealing with headaches, stomach problems and nervousness. Local doctors have been unable to explain the symptoms, he added. “I’m getting headaches. I haven’t puked, but I’ve been feeling nauseous,” said Stewart. “I weigh almost 400 pounds; there isn’t anything weak about my stomach.”

Meanwhile, BP has just bought full-page ads in the daily newspapers across the Gulf Coast to reassure residents that the company hasn’t wavered from its commitment to clean up the Gulf. The ads proclaimed, “We know we haven’t always been perfect but we are working to live up to our commitments, both now and in the future.”

Few will disagree that BP isn’t perfect, but even fewer believe the company is living up to its commitments. Fortunately the Gulf of Mexico appears to be recovering despite BP’s bungling.

Rick Outzen is publisher and editor of Independent News, the alternative newsweekly for Northwest Florida.