Facing South

A dolphin's dilemma for fishermen in the Gulf

By Rocky Kistner, Bridge the Gulf

Louisiana shrimp buyer Dean Blanchard has seen plenty of crazy things during his life in the bayou. But his eyes nearly popped out of their sockets the day he watched a mother dolphin pushing her dead baby calf towards him as he stood on the commercial dock of his once thriving seafood business on Grand Isle.  

The memory of the dolphin pushing her lifeless calf toward him is still seared in his brain a month later. "I've seen a lot things after this oil spill, but this was the worst," he says (see dramatic footage of a similar event recorded by researchers off the Texas coast in 2008).

Dean was able to retrieve the carcass from the dolphin cow and sent it out to an independent lab to see if there was any link to the five million barrels of oil BP spewed into the sea. Over the past year there has been a rash of adult and dead baby dolphins washing ashore along the oil-impacted Gulf coast. The National Marine fisheries still list these deaths as an unusual mortality event. Scientists have not yet tied the spike in deaths directly to the oil spill, but in May Florida researchers surmised that the oil spill had at least an indirect cause of the more than 150 dolphin deaths so far this year. Research shows that as many as 50 times that number may have actually died and never been recovered.

Dolphins are perhaps the Gulf coast's most sacred marine life, a symbol of the vitality of the region and an icon of the unique people who make it their home. One of those is Eric Tiser (in photo), a fisherman from Louisiana's Plaquemines Parish that was devastated by the oil spill. Eric calls himself a pirate of the sea, a scrapping self-proclaimed "coon-ass" whose nose was partly bitten off in a bar fight many years ago. Eric's as a wild as the thousands of acres of marshland that spread out from the end-of-the road fishing port of Venice 100 miles south of New Orleans.

When Eric sees a dolphin, his eyes light up and a smile broader than the mighty Mississippi spreads across his face. I witnessed that smile exactly a year ago when I took a ride with Eric to see if the oil was still washing in after BP's well from hell had been plugged. Along with Eric's 12-year old son, we motored along through the Katrina-battered bayous of Barataria Bay, where the oil was still thick in the mud and stuck to your feet like molasses.
  

But the worst was to come when we drove into the Gulf and cruised along the coast. Quickly we came across an orange, crusty patch of dispersant-soaked oil that spread tentacles of poison along the surface as far as the eye could see. It made you sick to smell and look at, but it was proof the oil was not gone as some were claiming. After I published a blog about our trip, I remember later talking to a Miami Herald editor who asked incredulously if the oil I had photographed was really as bad as it appeared. Yes, I told him, it really was that bad. The blog made it into a McClatchy News story under one of my most favorite headlines: When will oil spill be cleaned up? Maybe never.

I have gotten to know Eric pretty well over the past year, tasted his blackberry wine and watched him head into the marshes to shoot and slaughter wild hogs. Like many bayou fishermen, he got a gig working the oil cleanup, pulling in thousands of pounds of oil and tar balls that were washing daily into the marshes of his fishing grounds. But by early this year, Eric and the rest of the fishermen cleanup workers were laid off by BP and its contractors, their mission over.

But that's not how Eric sees it. He and others say tar balls and oil continue to roll in, and they say their job is far from done. What's worse, Eric says he and many fishermen haven't been paid the compensation BP promised to make up for tens of thousands of dollars in lost fishing income. Eric's used the money he made from the cleanup to buy a new truck and a boat, which he says has now been vandalized and sunk by people he won't name. "Someone's hating on me" is all he will say.

But even if Eric could get back on the water, he says it's not worth fishing anymore. The shrimp catches are as low as ever, and the market price for Gulf seafood has plummeted. With gas as high as it is, it's not worth the trip anymore. "We can't make any money," he complains. "All of our fishing grounds are empty right now. They're starving us to death."

Statements like these are sad to hear, especially coming from proud people who have survived every ferocious storm Mother Nature throws at them. But this oil disaster is different, many here say. They have no idea how to fight this disaster. I hear these kinds of comments from virtually everyone in the bayou I got to know over the past year. No one is listening to their story, they say.

When I think of Eric, I still like to think of that wide-as-the bayou smile he sported when we came across a pod of hungry dolphins deep in the bayou. I can still hear his belly-aching laugh as he drove his boat near the slick frantically-feeding mammals, watching the dolphins act like school kids rampaging through a candy store.

I cherish these memories. But sadly they do not reflect the reality on the ground these days. For many people of the Gulf, life seems harder now. They struggle on, hoping their lives will quickly return to the way it was before the oil invaded their shores. Like the mother dolphin pushing her dead calf, people of the bayou are desperate to find a solution to this terrible dilemma.

But these are not the images or the stories people hear about across the country. For Eric and others, the nation's on-going silence about this continuing tragedy is perhaps the most painful part of all.

(Photo of Eric Tiser by Rocky Kistner/NRDC.)

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