Today was the start of shrimp season in Louisiana, and way down in the Mississippi delta, fishermen and shrimpers struck out from the small black fishing towns that dot the river and headed out into the Gulf of Mexico, hoping and praying for the best.
But ever since the BP oil spill back in 2010, their hauls have gotten lighter and their hopes and prayers a bit dimmer. The seafood industry and the livelihood of those who make their money off the side of boats is collapsing beneath them, fishermen said.
"We don't have millions of dollars sitting in the bank where we can go do something else. We live and die on the seafood industry. This is our culture," said Byron Encalade, president of the Louisiana Oystermen Association. "This is how we live."
The oysters in many beds haven't reproduced, he said. And early reports from shrimpers said the outlook for this season doesn't look good, if today's catch is any indication.
Encalade blames the 87-day oil spill in the Gulf and the dispersants used by BP to thin the oil caked on the water for blighting the sea life here.
"I don't know where this concept of 'Everything is alright and they are doing what they are supposed to do' came from," he said. "These people are suffering down here, and I don't think they have the slightest idea of how these communities are surviving. But they're doing it on the back of Catholic Charities, nonprofits and each other."
Encalade said BP's public relations machine kicked into high gear from the start of the disaster, but he and others in the Delta know all too well how devastating the spill has been.
All this on the heels of an investigation by The Huffington Post into BP's grossly misleading early estimates of just how much oil was spewing into the Gulf.
BP knew that the well, tapping a reservoir of at least 50 million barrels, could release vast amounts of crude oil, dwarfing tanker-sized spills. But the company's experts quickly calculated that the well was releasing just 1,000 barrels a day, an estimate it provided to the Coast Guard shortly after the leak was found. The Coast Guard made BP's figure public on April 24.
Events soon proved Suttles' (Doug Suttles, BP's chief operating officer) reassurances to be terribly misplaced. The leak rate at the time was far, far higher than BP portrayed to the Coast Guard -- more than 50,000 barrels per day from the moment the rig went down until the well was capped 87 days later, a government-led panel of physicists and engineers would conclude that August. At that rate, the leak had produced an Exxon Valdez-sized spill at least every five days.
Now, Encalade says the mostly poor and mostly black fishermen in towns like Point-a-La-Hache are struggling to make ends meet and with little real assistance so far from BP. Many of the fishermen and oystermen have not received a dime from the company.
"We still have people trying to figure out how to file claims," Encalade said. "Not everyone can afford accountants and everything else. BP has people with master's degrees and doctorate degrees reviewing these files for them. The average fisherman in the South doesn't have a high school diploma. That's another hurdle."
Click here to read more of The Huffington Post's investigation into BP's manipulation of oil spill estimates.
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