Saturday, May 01, 2010

Gulf Oil Spill and the Law: Fishermen wait for spill effects


Shrimp fishermen in south Louisiana have traded in their fishing gear for garbage bags and anything else they can use to collect as much of the crude oil now leaking at about 200,000 gallons per day from a collapsed BP rig and posing an increasing threat to their livelihood.

“We’re trying to save our industry at this point,” said Kim Chauvin, fourth generation co-owner of Mariah Jade Shrimp Co. south of Houma.

While environmentalists and ecologists struggle to predict the coastal impact of the slick, which has already come aground on the Mississippi Delta, Chauvin is optimistic that the central and western parts of the state will not be affected.

“There’s no need for alarm in the central and western parts of the state,” she said.

In New Orleans, a team of lawyers from throughout the Gulf Coast has been assembled to prosecute claims for affected commercial fisherman. With the oil just now reaching land, the attorneys said that there is still no way of knowing what kind of monetary impact the oil leak could have on fisherman. But in any case, they’re taking “pre-emptive action.”

On Wednesday, the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries opened up an area to shrimp harvesting a couple weeks early in anticipation of damage from the oil slick.

“In consideration of the potential threat to these resources… this special season should provide fisherman with added economic opportunity through harvest and sale of over-wintering white shrimp,” the release says.

The LDWF has been trying to figure put what kind of economic impact the oil leak could have on the state’s seafood industry. It has begun gathering the dockside value of commercial seafood landings with a focus on the the Mississippi Delta area and parts east.

“We identified an area likely to suffer because of the spill,” said Jack Isaacs, an economist with the LDWF.

From 2007 to 2009, the average annual value of shrimp caught in the Lake Pontchartrain Basin was $9.24 million or 7.1 percent of the state’s total commercial seafood landings. In the Mississippi Delta, there was nearly $7.41 million worth of shrimp caught yearly, or 5.68 percent of the state’s total.

There is a total yearly dockside commercial value of seafood at $44.8 million in the Lake Pontchartrain Basin and $8.7 million in the Mississippi Delta, and the values do not include any additional value added by wholesalers, processors, packers, distributors, retailers or restaurants, Isaacs said.

Perhaps more worrisome for the seafood industry is the vulnerability of oysters. State research shows that 78 percent of oysters harvested from public reefs in Louisiana are in the Lake Pontchartrain Basin, representing $11.7 million in value. Another 45 percent of oyster coming from private leases in the state are in that same basin, totaling $12.7 million in value.

“The good thing for shrimp and fish is that they can swim away as the slick of oil approaches them,” said Cliff Hall, co-owner of seafood distributor New Orleans Fish House. “Oysters, unfortunately, will not be so lucky, as they are connected to the reefs and cannot move.”

Like Chauvin, Hall is anxiously hoping that winds keep the slick to the east of the Mississippi River delta.

“While it’s not good for the east side of the river, the positive part of this is it’s not affecting west side of river,” Hall said. “We’ll continue to draw from those resources for our restaurants.”•