Eulogy for the Bayou (a Guest Post from Philip Hoffman)

By Chris Mooney | May 4, 2010 8:27 am

When Sheril and Chris asked me to contribute to a series of posts on the losses and challenges from the Deep Horizons well disaster, I had a tough time deciding where to go.  It would be easy to talk about the alphabet soup of agencies responding to the disaster; to recount how hard it really is to get oil boom deployed, maintained and retrieved. or discuss in great and probably boring detail the ecosystem services and species now imperiled by America’s carbon burning folly.  Instead, I offer you this, as my eulogy to yet another wound inflicted upon my home states by all our hubris (Katrina was the most recent prior one – there have been many others).

Gulf_of_Mexico_oil_spill_May_1_croppedAt 4AM, Baton Rouge LA is a very quiet town.  A day-time drive that takes 15 minutes turns into a five minute sprint.  Beside a Quonset hut two large dual cab pick-ups are being loaded.  The teams work quietly – but as the coffee kicks in the jokes begin to pervade the air.  Boxes of nets, cylinders of chemicals, racks of bottles all emerge from their careful storage rooms and are placed in the backs of the trucks.

In a few short minutes the small convoy is on the road, and running down I-10 leaving the “big city” behind.  We exit the Interstate at Donaldsonville, and cross the Mississippi River looking down on the Air Liquide compressed gas plant, and Chef John Folse’s then-new restaurant.  Soon enough, the sun begins to think about emerging from the horizon, and we’re in the Hardee’s parking lot in Houma, shoving sausage biscuits and coffee throughout the truck cabs.

We continue on down Highway 30, passing through Galiano and Golden Meadow as the sun begins to seriously climb over the marsh.  Golden Meadow slows us down.  Like many small bayou towns it is renowned for its fishermen and trappers, its oil industry support, and its speeding tickets.  Rumor, or rather rural legend, has it that the Commandant of the Louisiana State Police got a ticket there once.

By 7AM we’re down on the docks at Port Fourchon.  Here, there’s only one town left before the Gulf of Mexico opens up completely, Grand Isle – whose bunker like city hall is the stuff of coastal legend.  We work quickly to load the 96 foot steel hull former shrimp boat, whose captain gets a more regular income to run scientists out to the Gulf once a week then he did shrimping.  Across the street, the heliport is buzzing with flights in and out – all in support of the oil rig fleet anchored hard offshore.  From here we’ll run two more hours out to sea, headed to the platform of the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port (LOOP).

The deckhands loosen the ropes, and we slide away from the dock.  Prep work dies down, and my colleagues fall off – some to read, some to nap, some to drink more coffee in the galley.  I take up what has become my usual place on the bow, looking at the Bottlenose dolphins that play in the bow wave.  Back then, I thought my career would be in cetaceans – soon enough I’d drift to a much more interesting niche in fisheries oceanography.

Before we know it, the LOOP platform looms into view, and we get our selves together.  First its water column sampling, then dual plankton and fish tows.  I jump back and forth between prepping the water samples, taken from Nisken Bottles (on a rosette) fired from the deck of the boat by the computer as the rosette drops through the water, to the fish trawls.  Once we get them sub-sampled and record all sorts of parameters, it’s back to the water sampling.  A particularly perky blue crab, clearly bent on survival, grabs my shoes by the laces and refuses to let go.

By the time it’s done, we have hundreds of pounds of commercially important and recreationally popular fish and invertebrate species in our coolers.  They will get measured, weighed, and sampled for genetics and age (either through the ear bones or through the scales).  We’ve collected almost as much water as fish, and the trucks will be heavily laden on the way back.  Then it’s back to the dock, unloading under the constant drone of the helicopter blades, and up the highway.  This time, we stop at the Popeye’s Fried Chicken in Houma, who are so used to us that when the trucks roll in, they start picking chicken before we even order.

Down the bayou, fishing, shrimping and oil are ways of life.  They get passed from father to son, and generations of families shrimp, trap, fish, and go to the rigs together.  For better or worse, they help feed the nation, and with 27% of our petroleum products going through south Louisiana, they fuel our Nation as well.

So as the oil comes ashore in the weeks and months ahead, the losses will be found across the spectrum of ecosystem components.  Those dolphins, the shrimp and crabs whose descendents now ply those waters, and the Cajun fishermen and roughnecks who fled that sinking burning rig into the abyss will, and have, already suffered.  All in the name of oil – and all in the name of our Nation.

Looking across those waters from that bow, I knew the bargain was set against those people and those ecosystems, and I can only pray that as we go forward, this will be the final watershed that pushes the ocean and coasts from a place to take what we want, to a place to revere and safeguard.  You see, for us, just like the levees failing, the oiling of our beaches, estuaries, and fisheries were, all my life, a question of when, and not if.  I think we, and they, deserve better.

Philip H. serves the people of Louisiana and the Nation doing fisheries and living marine resource policy work in Washington D.C.  This latest iteration in his career follows years as a field biologist, habitat restoration biologist, and civil works environmental project manager.  He blogs on policy analysis topics (mostly non-marine) at http://www.districtofcolumbiadispatches.blogspot.com.  These views are entirely his own, and in no way represent the official position of his current federal agency, or any state or county agency he may previously have worked for.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Marine Science

Comments (7)

  1. Elena Strange

    Philip, this is lovely. I’m a former resident of New Orleans, and it breaks my heart to read about the well disaster. Though I moved away before Katrina, I remember the sense of inevitability about devastating hurricanes (like the sense in my new home state of California when it comes to earthquakes). You mention that you hope this will be the final watershed to get us to protect our coasts. How do you think/hope policy will change in reaction?

  2. Elena,
    Thanks for chiming in. Policy changes need to happen at a number of levels, both big and small. I think the best one would be a realistic pricing structure for petroleum products that recoups the full environmental costs of using the products. This so much more then an emission tax in my mind, but that would definitely be a part of it. IF the costs in clean air, clean water, lives, and ecosystem services were priced into the gallon of gas you put in your car, or into the plastic bag we all get at the grocery store, we’d use less, thus needing less, thus driving down the profitability of drilling in 5000 feet of water so close to some of our nation’s most precious estuaries and beaches.

  3. I think of all that Louisiana has been through and my heart aches. I truly believe we’re seeing the death of this part of the United States. In the decades to come, we’ll talk to our children about New Orleans and that part of the Gulf Coast in the past tense, as a fading but cherished memory.

  4. I truly believe we’re seeing the death of this part of the United States. In the decades to come, we’ll talk to our children about New Orleans and that part of the Gulf Coast in the past tense, as a fading but cherished memory.

    Sadly I agree with you, but I don’t recall being asked if I wanted the city to die . . . and I Maintain, as I have since Katrina, that if this were Tampa, or Miami, or Houston, we as a Nation would make different choices. Instead, we collectively rolled the dice that there would be no repercussions to our actions down there, and now we’re coming up snake eyes again. So tragic. Too Tragic.

  5. Philip, I concur. I think there is a much different standard being played out in Louisiana than there would be in other areas of the country. Which makes it all that more tragic. I hope both of us are wrong. I love New Orleans and I get there any time I can (like next year for the American Society of Microbiology General Meeting). I would love to be able to bring my children there one day, rather than have to explain the past to them.

  6. Thanks for shining a light on the personal tragedies. Will LA ever catch a break?

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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