On a stormy, rain-splattered Sunday, fishermen and their families from four Gulf Coast states drove to Captain Anderson’s Marina in Panama City, FL. It was the same day the Panama City News Herald front page featured a huge photo of President Obama swimming happily with his daughter in the nearby Gulf. “Dive in, Mr. President,” the headline screamed.
But for these fishermen and coastal residents, diving in was the last thing on their minds. They came to make their voices heard about deep concerns they have for the safety of the seafood caught in these waters. They say an estimated 200 million gallons of BP oil that spewed into the Gulf is still very much a health risk to residents and the environment.
“If one batch of bad seafood goes on the market it’s over for our commercial fishermen,” said Kindra Arnesen, wife of a shrimp fisherman in Venice, LA. “If we can’t work, we’re going to lose our places, we’re going to lose our homes, our land, our foothold…I’m talking about people with generations of commercial fishermen as far back as they can trace.”
Fishermen from Florida, Alabama and Mississippi had the same concerns. They say they've been finding oil and dispersants in the water at levels they believe continues to threaten their communities and livelihoods. “We had fishermen wading into the water three days ago covered in oil,” said Alabama fisherman Capt. Chris Bryant. “How can these waters possibly be safe for people to fish?”
“It’s not gone, it’s still there. It’s simply dispersed, it's in the water column and on the bottom, “ said Louisiana Bayoukeeper's Tracy Kuhns. “Adequate testing has not been done…so when they keep saying it’s safe, they don’t really know that.”
Watch the video of the Florida press conference produced for the Bridge The Gulf website by Ada McMahon.
A week ago, Alabama fishermen set out to find the oil themselves, tying strips of rag paper to hooks and lowering them into the water a quarter mile off Christian Pass, MS. Within seconds they pulled the hooks out and the paper rag was saturated with oil and dispersant stains.
“We’re just uneducated fishermen," said Mississippi fisherman Mark Stewart. “If we can find it, anybody who wants to can find it.”
Watch the Bridge The Gulf video here to see exactly what the fishermen found.
Despite concerns of many fishermen across the region, fishing grounds are being opened up and beaches have been cleared for swimming. Today shrimp fishing season has been opened in Louisiana west of the Mississippi River, an area that has been heavily oiled over the past three months. Certain areas remain closed, but some local fishermen are incensed that public officials have opened these fish grounds anyway, declaring them safe.
“It’s outrageous, “says shrimp fisherman Acy Cooper, vp of the Louisiana Shrimp Association last night. "We don’t think these waters are safe for shrimping yet they open them anyway. BP is laying off fishermen from the cleanup, so a lot of them won’t have a choice. But we all know what will happen if contaminated shrimp gets into the market. And the fishermen will get the blame.”
So today, as another Gulf storm threatens the coastline of southern Louisiana, shrimp fishermen are trawling off fertile fishing grounds in the bayous of the Gulf. Fishermen and residents are holding their collective breaths that their worries are just that—worries.
As the winds begin to blow and roil the Gulf, many wonder if they will bring oil-soaked seas and sediments closer to fishing grounds near shore and into the marshes. People here are used to storms and the destruction of high tides. But this time, no one knows how much oil beneath the surface will come with it.