HOPEDALE, LA.— In the small towns of coastal Louisiana, the widespread consensus is that the oil is far from gone.
Fishermen return from working on cleanup crews or from recreational angling trips with stories of crabs whose lungs are black with oil, or of oysters with shells covered in sludge. They take photos and carry tarballs home like talismans to show what they have seen. They talk about their fears with anyone who will listen, and often their voices are tinged with panic.
Yet a government report released last week by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said that 75 percent of the oil has been cleaned up, dispersed or otherwise contained. And the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reports that of all the samples of seafood that have been tested since the oil spill, none have shown evidence of contamination.
While some in the coastal seafood industry agree with these assessments, a majority seem to view the news with a sense of betrayal.
"The cleanup isn’t even close to being done," said Karen Hopkins of Dean Blanchard Seafood, which accounts for about 11 percent of the U.S. shrimp supply, on the barrier island of Grand Isle.
"The last thing I want to do is scare anyone away from the seafood down here," said Dawn Nunez, standing at the counter of the shrimp wholesale business and deli she owns in the tiny fishing town of Hopedale. "But if I’m not eating it or feeding it to my children, I can’t advise anyone else to eat it either."
On their dock across the street, Dawn’s husband Marty Nunez pulls a clump of oil-ridden marsh grass out of a plastic bag.
"There’s people fishing where this is at – or worse than this," he said. "I can’t understand how they say things are getting back to normal."
Nunez surreptitiously picked the grass while working as part of BP’s Vessels of Opportunity cleanup operation on Monday. For him the oil-soaked grass is a symbol of a lurking threat. Like many other people living along the coast, Nunez is confident that vast quantities of oil remain in the environment, despite highly publicized announcements to the contrary.
"Our fishermen bring home grass and tarballs and then we watch the news and they say there is no sign of oil," said Dawn Nunez. "Where did it go? Where did millions of gallons of oil go if it’s not in the Gulf?"
A widely held theory is that the 1.8 million gallons of dispersants that were sprayed during the cleanup operation caused the oil to sink to the bottom.
"I’ve been working with oil all my life," said Brian Zito, a commercial fisherman on Grand Isle. "Dispersant is like a soap, and if you wash your hands in a bucket your water will be all white and soapy and fine. But let that bucket sit there for a few hours and see what happens – all that oil is going to come back together."
When they start trawling for shrimp or dredging for oysters, fishermen fear that the oil will get stirred up again.
For now that fear is largely untested. Although 5,144 square miles of federal waters affected by the oil spill had been deemed safe as of Tuesday, little of that good news applies to Louisiana. The state’s three main fisheries are crab, oysters and shrimp – but the shrimp season doesn’t open until next week. And crab and oyster fishing is almost entirely shut down because of the spill, as are most of the nearshore fishing grounds relied on by Louisiana’s shrimpers.
But perhaps the biggest problem faced by the state’s commercial fishermen is that they don’t trust their own product. Even when the government decides they are allowed to fish in the marshes again, many say they are going to wait.
"I know what’s out there and I’m not going to mess up my equipment with oil," Zito said in an often-repeated sentiment. "You can’t even ride back there in a boat without stirring up tarballs, let alone put a net in the water."
Trawling for shrimp involves dragging a heavy chain, called a tickling chain, across the bottom of the marsh, lake or ocean. Shrimp that live in the muck swim up, and get scooped into the waiting net. And if oil is on the sea floor like the fishermen fear, that will get stirred up as well.
And if there is any contamination of the seafood, there is a very real chance that the individual fishermen could ultimately be held responsible. Past lawsuits filed by restaurant customers have made this possibility seem very real.
"We are going to have to buy product liability insurance on a product that we’ve never had to worry about before," Hopkins said.
Perhaps because of this, demand for Gulf Coast seafood is down. Marty Nunez said that the processor he has sold to for years called to warn him they wouldn’t be buying his product, should he get any in.
"They can’t buy it because they can’t sell it," he said. "They can’t even sell Gulf Coast shrimp that they have from last year."
But the fishermen facing this uncertain future stand to lose much more than a job. Many come from families that have hunted, fished and lived in Louisiana’s swampy waterways for generations.
"This is a way of life," Nunez said. "It’s what we eat, drink and breathe."