ON THE GULF OF MEXICO — Ron Price guns the outboard motor on his 22-foot fishing boat, racing through an alley in high marsh grass and finally settling into a small oil-soaked bay.
The 40-year-old charter boat captain scans the high roseau cane ringing the edge of Redfish Bay, one of the best fishing spots in the area. Now it's ruined: the stalks are stained rust-red with oil, from the high tide mark to the low-tide mark – at least 4 feet.
"Even God can't fix this," Price says. "And BP certainly can't."
It's been a month since the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded and collapsed, killing 11 of its crew and unleashing the oil leak that's gushed millions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf. The people who rely on its waters to make a living knew it would be bad. But with swaths of the Gulf closed to fishing indefinitely and fears that consumers may not trust Gulf seafood for years, the fishermen and others are just starting to realize the scope of the devastation.
Broken, twisted strings of boom that failed to soak up the oil bob all around the oily marshlands near the South Pass of the Mississippi River. On a small sandy island southeast of the rivermouth, a dragonfly with oil-stained wings sits on a plant sagging under the weight of sticky ooze. Here, it smells like an old gas station.
"Once those canes die, you're looking at the whole fishery dying," he says.
The cane makes up a huge part of the marshlands and are key to the health of the fish that live there.
A few feet away, a sandy beach exposed at low tide appears to be clear of the oil, but another one nearby had thick globs of it scattered around. Shorebirds nearby scuttled around pecking the sand for food. Mullet fish, which feed on the surface of the Gulf, popped out of the oily water just offshore.
Price, whose charter company Fish Intimidator goes after trophy-sized redfish and trout, has a young son and daughter. He says he had just started getting back in the black after suffering mightily from Hurricane Katrina.
"That little $5,000 check BP gave me, for some people that might seem like money, but with the overhead I have $5,000 isn't a good start," he says. "I'd like to say it was, but when you're in debt up to your eyeballs $5,000 is like five days of work." BP has paid $5,000 a month to fishermen filing out-of-work claims.
The oil clinging to these vital marshes here is nauseating and sticky.
Sporting a baseball cap, reflective shades, shorts and a T-shirt, Price took out a can of WD-40 and sprayed reporters' hands to dissolve the oil.
Beyond a piece of broken boom was another marsh, oily stalks glistening from the falling sunlight. "Look, the boom is clean, but the cane is covered in oil," Price says. "It took hundreds of years to create this, and it's gone just like that."
Federal fisheries managers have already closed nearly a fifth of federal waters in the Gulf to fishing, including many areas relied upon by Price and others who operate out of Venice, La. Price says he works six days a week fishing, and now the future is uncertain.
But even when fishermen are allowed back on the water, industry groups and fishermen fear customers will question the safety of their product for years in what is one of the nation's most productive fisheries.
The effects on the Gulf coast economy of this oil and chemical dispersants being used to fight it back from these marshes will likely ripple through many sectors, not just fishing, said Jean-Michel Cousteau, the environmentalist and documentary filmmaker in Louisiana working on a piece about the spill.
The dispersants are being used to break apart the oil deep in the sea so it can't reach the surface.
The 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska and other spills have shown that closing fisheries harms not only fishermen but also tourism, boat parts manufacturers, markets and all related businesses.
"It creates total chaos in the local economy," Cousteau says. "It's not fair to the fishermen, it's not fair to families, it's not fair to kids and it's not fair to future generations."
Meanwhile, Price has four days chartered over the next week, fishing in the sections of the Gulf still open to him.
"Things were really starting to go good until Katrina," he says. "Katrina set me back, and I'm just starting to get my business up and going, it was on fire."