Gulf Oil Spill Threatens Local Seafood Industry

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Eric Gay / AP

Seagulls and other birds fly past oil booms protecting coastline from a spill from last week's collapse of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, Saturday, May 1, 2010, along the North Shore south of Venice, Louisiana.

They call this city the End of the World, and for many shrimpers whose entire lives have been spent here in Louisiana's southernmost outpost, it suddenly feels like it. As officials continue to struggle to stem nearly 200,000 gallons of crude oil that has surged from the base of the Gulf of Mexico in what may be the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, Mississippi River delta residents are trying to make a buck as long as their fragile business survives.

Early Saturday morning, 48-year-old Billy De La Cruz moved buckets of plump white shrimp — "the size of golf balls" — from the barrel of his boat onto the back of a pickup truck. He'd just returned from days pulling shrimp three miles off the coast of Louisiana. Next stop: New Orleans, a 90-minute's drive to the north, where he hopes to get $10 a pound for shrimp that would normally cost $3.50. Grocers and restaurants there and across the Gulf Coast fear that the oil spill will diminish a regional dietary staple. "It's going to be unreal," he says of the anticipated demand.

It may also be one of his last chances to get a profit, at least for a while. The son of a welder and homemaker, De La Cruz began shrimping at age 8. He bought a boat and built a successful shrimp business. Then came Hurricane Katrina. "Took my boat, my house, everything," he says. Somehow, he managed to buy Captain Prong, a 55-foot-long white boat with blue trim. The boat's name is a holdover from its previous owner, and De La Cruz takes it to mean good luck. His business partner, Dean Ansarei, poked his arm out the boat's barrel, held out a plump shrimp, and shouted: "Look at these pretty shrimp. You can't get no better than that. But after this spill," he says, "you won't find them around here, anymore."

Experts say large fish and shrimp can sense unusual matter in water — like a lack of oxygen or a wall of oil — and typically, they turn the other way. Young oysters move with the water's current, and as they grow larger, "They glue themselves onto a hard surface, and they're stuck," says Karen Foote, a marine biologist for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. On Thurs., April 29, Louisiana officials opened a special white shrimp season near the mouth of the Mississippi River, mainly to allow the capturing of the unusually large, early supply of white shrimp before oil reached the state's coast. By sunset Friday, however, officials took a precautionary measure: closing shrimping, fishing and oyster harvest areas for much of the Louisiana coast near the Mississippi border. "You don't want a tainted product on the market. They're already reeling from the impact of this spill, even if a single bit of oil hasn't touched the oyster beds," Foote says.

The developments have driven the hostility between the oil companies and the 2,000 or so residents of this city. Some companies are now trying to temporarily lease the boats of shrimpers and fishermen for the cleanup effort, though rough seas and high winds hampered much of those activities on Saturday. "The oil people behind them desks, they don't know what they did, and they don't know the bayou," says De La Cruz.

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