With gallows humor, my fellow oystermen around the country have been passing around a Youtube clip of a 1960 educational film produced by the oil industry entitled "Lifeline to an Oyster."
This reel explains how in the late 1950's Louisiana oystermen began sounding the alarm that oil production in the Gulf was killing their oysters. The American Petroleum Institute came to the rescue, donating $2 million to researchers at Texas A&M University to "figure out the problem" by studying the effects of oil on oysters. Any guesses on the results?
Turns out oysters love oil.
According to the narrator, after six months of living in a simulated oil spill "The test oysters showed no ill effects from oil. As a matter of fact the test oysters were so happy they brought forth new generations to share their lot. They never had it so good!" Scientists are shown explaining to eager oystermen why oil is a friend not foe of the oyster industry.
Fast forward 50 years and oil companies like BP remain dedicated to "helping" oystermen. Within days after the initial spill BP, set up employment centers where oystermen and other fishermen had the opportunity to wait in line for temporary jobs "cleaning" the Gulf. Tony Hayward, BP's CEO soothed fears by explaining amount of oil in the Gulf is "tiny" compared with all that seawater and that the environmental impact will be "very, very modest." BP even donated $2 million to the Louisiana Seafood Council to figure out how to respond to worried customers asking: "Are these oysters from the Gulf?"
Gallows humor masks our pain and fury.
BP's reckless and insatiable pursuit of ever-deeper underwater oil wells has turned the Gulf into a poisonous swamp forcing the shutdown of 1000's of acres of oyster grounds. NOAA has set up an oil "damage assessment" program to use Gulf oysters to signal where and when oil contaminants are entering the food chain. As one scientist explained, "Because oysters have to sit there and take it and they can't run away, they're a very good canary in the coal mine."
One oyster filters up to 50 gallons of water a day -- with nowhere to hide they are left to choke on BPs toxic sludge. And whatever oysters do survive will poison the entire ocean food chain as both oil and dispersant contaminants concentrate in their tissues and are passed onto larger marine species.
As the oyster goes, so goes the oysterman. Before the disaster, the Gulf provided 40% of the nation's oysters, generating $318 million annually for the region. It's brutal to watch the evening news, night after night, as Gulf oystermen and other fishermen choke back tears and fury, clinging to legacies of self-reliance and fortitude. "We'll bounce back; we always do" is the refrain. But as the disaster continues to unfold, they know, in words of one captain, that "We're watching our livelihood and even an entire culture being washed away by crude oil and chemicals."
BP has now hired Anne Womack Kolton, an aide to former Vice President Dick Cheney, to run it's $50 million new media campaign to promote the company's efforts to "restore the livelihoods" of Gulf Coast fishermen. As of June 1st, BP had paid out an average of $1,200 per person to 25,000 people in six states. People whose livelihoods BP has wiped out for their lifetime and perhaps their children's lifetimes are being offered less than they might make from a single day's catch. Reports are now pouring in of BP's claims adjusters rejecting fishermen's applications left and right.
At the same time, BP appears to be laying the groundwork to limit its future liabilities in court. Listen closely to BP's CEO and every mention of covering fishermen's losses is couched as paying only "legitimate claims." This is legalese for "We'll tie up your claims in court until you either die off or we convince a judge to reduce damage awards". Exxon did it in Alaska, appealing for more than 20 years and finally convincing the courts to reduce damages by 90%. Based on his experience as the lawyer representing Alaskan fishermen against Exxon, Brian O'Neill recently told Huffington Post, "if you were affected in Louisiana, to use a legal term, you are just f--ked."
BP has no intention to make anyone "whole" again. But this is only a small piece of the picture of how BP and other oil corporations are "f--cking" oystermen and everyone else along the way.
Supposing Obama and the courts really required BP to pay for the damage it has done: all bills get paid; all the oil is cleaned up; fishing grounds are miraculously restored.
Oystermen would still be doomed.
Why? Because within 40-50 years scientists anticipate a die-off of oysters worldwide. The greenhouse gases released from burning oil and other fossil fuels are quickly turning oceans too acidic for oysters and other shellfish to survive. This ocean acidification is taking place at ten times the rate that preceded the mass marine extinction 55 million years ago. Scientists recently studied the unexpected die-off of several billion oyster, clam and mussel larvae at the Oregon Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery in 2008 and concluded that acidic water was the likely candidate for the destruction. Another 2009 report estimates that 85 percent of oyster reefs worldwide have already been destroyed.
As the old salts say in Newfoundland, 'tis a bad outlook, my son. On our current course, all of us oysterman will be left to stand in the unemployment lines.
Of course BP is not the only one responsible -- our whole society runs on fossil fuels. But the oil industry has pumped millions into campaigns to ensure the twin evils of greenhouse gases -- climate change and ocean acidification -- are not addressed.
If BP, Obama and the rest of the country are more than rhetorically committed to saving the oyster and rest of the seafood industry, it's going to require a major commitment -- and funding -- to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels and repower our society with renewable energy sources. It's going to mean thousands of wind and solar farms, just transition and green jobs programs for oil, coal and other workers impacted by a switch to renewable energy.
There is already an on-going struggle to make BP pay for the damage it has done to fishing communities and everyone else in the Gulf. But that can't mean putting things back to the same doomed condition they were in before. We should require BP to compensate those whose livelihoods it has destroyed by paying for hundreds of wind and solar farms -- providing its victims green jobs restoring the region's economy based on clean, safe, and renewable energy. Let's take BP's motto "Beyond Petroleum" to heart and make the region BP destroyed the poster child for the transition to a green energy economy.
Out of disaster this could be the beginning of saving our oceans and the livelihoods of all that work the sea.