We’re rushing from Grand Isle, Louisiana to D’iberville, Mississippi where our guide, Pat Heidingsfelder, has set up a town hall style meeting with Gulf Coast shrimpers. It’s an uncanny mix of folks: half are Cajun, the others are from the Vietnamese community. But they all share something in common in this room. They’re angry at the situation in their waters and they feel helpless to do anything about it.
What’s at the crux of this problem is mistrust and confusion. I’m currently investigating the real effects of dispersants, talking with high level folks at NOAA fisheries and reading all that’s being published. Lots of information that’s coming out isn’t from peer-reviewed sources and from my journalistic vantage, can’t be considered credible. Anecdotal evidence is important, but sound science is paramount.
Knee deep in uncertainty, here’s what I know: The truth of the toxicity of the water is remarkably more complex than the media have been portraying and lots of scientists, unqualified to speak to the implications of Corexit 9500 and 9527, are screaming at the top of their lungs on MSNBC. And it’s not helpful.
Rumor turns to fact once it disseminates across a community. Invariably, it gets quoted by journalists looking for juice, and there’s no shortage of ambulance chasers here, journalistic and otherwise. But when that juice gets picked up by the Associated Press and spreads like a game of telephone hotted up on SEO, it’s hard to unpack the truth. Our cynical media outlets don’t care, and people are suffering hard for it. It makes me angry, especially since I’m one who believes that truth is progress.
We’re in town, right at the close of Brown Shrimp season and the opening of White Shrimp season. The fishermen talk about an ocean dead. They talk about getting sick from dispersants. They talk about finding oil in the water when Dr. Bill Walker, head of Marine Natural Resources for Mississippi, says their is no oil in the water. They show videos of finding it three quarters of a mile offshore, in 12 feet of water.
What’s at stake is big. The seafood industry has collapsed in the Gulf because public perception is reality. And the reality is that it’s unsafe. It may very well be. But that’s the point exactly; Walker has declared that fishing season is open, which by definition, means state officials are declaring that it’s safe. It also means BP isn’t on the hook for lost days of work anymore. But if their are no shrimp and there is evidence of oil, these guys can’t sell their product, even if they can find it. Besides, none of them want to sell stuff that will make people sick. When the facilitator asks who is buying right now, only one man raises his hand. It’s for a small buyer. In effect, there is no market. Would you eat Gulf seafood right now?
To add insult to injury, these men are often divided on the issue. In the wake of a massive fisheries collapse, and when the oil was still spewing, several of these guys were hired by BP’s “Vessels of Opportunity” program to assist in the ‘incident response effort’ as BP named it. Half the men in this room have made a bucket full of cash – one netting 200K in just 74 days – by re-purposing their boats for the BP cause. But others haven’t been hired, and they don’t know why. Truck sales are booming from BP money, and truck repossessions are rampant from out of work, un-BP-hired fisherman. The net result, and perhaps one of the most insidious facts I’ve uncovered during my time here, is that this divide destroys this group’s ability to organize and unify. We know what results from a lack of cohesion: muffling.
As the evening progresses, I’m looking at the other members of our delegation, bearing witness, as I photograph everything. I haven’t seen this kind of emotion on people’s faces since watching airplanes fly into the World Trade Center. It’s heart wrenching and I feel dirty, ugly. As the complexities unfold, meaning splinters and darkens.
This is a region in crisis. This is a world gone mad. What’s hardest on the heart is that what people desperately want, above all, is to get back to how things were. But how it was isn’t sustainable. This is a never ending story.
Images: Stiv Wilson