Top hats. Junk shots. Top kills. Insertion tubes. This is the new vocabulary we are learning as the Gulf Coast oil spill enters its fifth week. Over the weekend an insertion tube began siphoning off 20 to 40% of the oil directly from the pipe, and this week mud will be injected into the well in order to “top kill” the blowout preventer. Meanwhile, National Public Radio has reported new estimates of oil leakage at 20,000 or more barrels (i.e. 840,000 gallons) per day – which would mean more than 20,000,000 gallons of crude oil have been released thus far.

Although there is still uncertainty about the extent of the spill, the commercial fishing industry has already come under threat. Oil has begun appearing in sensitive marshland, and Gulf Coast states have initiated precautionary closures of most commercial fisheries. A friend of mine and local dock owner, Sugar Tran, said that a boat brought in 10,000 pounds of shrimp that smelled like oil and they had to dump the entire lot. That one haul was worth over $40,000.

In Louisiana, commercial fishermen live between two constraints: debt and product. Following Hurricane Katrina, most fishermen were forced to borrow thousands of dollars to repair hulls, buy new engines, replace booms, and fix rusted winches. The industry is extremely over-leveraged and relies on a consistent supply of product to maintain their debt service (as well as their house notes, car payments, and food for the kids). In recent years it’s been even harder to maintain this balance as the Iraq war has driven up the price of diesel, and foreign imports have cut the purchase price of seafood.

Commercial fishermen now face the worst scenario of all: no product. Oil that gets into marshes will ruin spawning grounds, kill the food supply for juvenile shrimp and fish, and severely affect the health of oyster beds and crab habitat. On the other hand, due to the use of dispersants, oil will cover the floor of the ocean. This will keep trawlers from dragging their nets for fear of scooping up oil into their product. Without shrimp, oysters, crabs, and finfish, commercial fishermen will have no money, no jobs, useless assets, and a mountain of debt that can’t be paid.

Even though some areas of the coast line will not be affected by the spill, local fishermen can’t move to these areas because they can’t fish a place they don’t know. They can’t sell their boats because in the current situation, no one will buy them. They can’t wait out the long-term clean-up because they have to pay debt in the short term. Commercial fishermen have to have access to this product, in this place, at this time, or they will face bankruptcies and foreclosures.

After Katrina we knew that the industry could be rebuilt. But after the oil spill, there may be nothing to rebuild. A way of life is on the brink of catastrophic loss.

– Jeremy Stone

Jeremy Stone, one of Ecotrust Canada’s economic development consultants, has gone to New Orleans, Louisiana during May and June to work on the Gulf oil spill recovery. He will be reporting on his experiences with fisheries and the local economy through a series of blog posts.