Fishermen prepare for the worst with BP oil spill

By Andrew Blejwas
For Loyde Duncan, mending his nets is just one of many chores he has become expert at in the decades he has spent earning his living as a fisherman in the waters off Louisiana. Photo: Audra Melton/Oxfam America

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Fisherman Loyde Duncan has been fishing the waters off coastal Louisiana almost his entire life. He’s owned more boats than many people have been on, and weathered more storms than he cares to count. But the threat from the British Petroleum oil spill is unlike any he has ever faced.

“See, with a storm, (there’s) damage and you come back, you know,” Duncan said recently while mending a hole in one of his fishing nets in Venice, LA. “This here is different than a storm .First time we ever had something like this. (With a storm) if people lost their job and didn’t have their job, they come and fish. This here is the life of the people here, fishing. This is their lifeline here. A lot of people make their living and survive with their fishing.”

Duncan has spent the past five years trying to rebuild his life since Hurricane Katrina swept through Louisiana. And although the storm was severe, he suffered the most damage afterwards when a private company from New York, hired by the Coast Guard, came through Venice and began delivering on their mandate to lift swamped boats like Duncan’s from the water. Instead of cloth ties, the company used metal cables for the task, destroying the fiberglass hull on Duncan’s boat and dozens of others—before the Coast Guard could stop it.

Now the fishermen on the Gulf Coast are getting hit again. Duncan has barely been able to get out to fish the areas he’s out on almost daily during this time of year. In a normal year he’d plan on fishing four months out of the year – and earning a year’s income in that time. Since the spill however, he’s already lost one month and expects to lose at least two more. With authorities opening and closing fishing areas on a case by case basis, he goes out when he can. Meanwhile, the bills pile up and he says, plainly, that he doesn’t know where he’s going to get the money to pay off the note on his boat. He hopes assistance will come from BP but hasn’t talked to any company representatives in the nearly two months since the spill. No one from the government has been by to offer their help either.

Much of the physical and financial help that arrived after Katrina never reached its intended targets. Many worry the same will happen again, with assistance going to those best prepared to navigate the complex levels of bureaucracy that come with a multi-billion dollar effort like the Road Home recovery program in Louisiana or now, the BP Deepwater Horizon Disaster Victim Compensation Fund. In many cases, the most vulnerable people have the hardest time getting help.

Raising voices—again

“People in the Gulf Coast are famously resilient, but they are running out of options.   The response is way too slow for people who depend on the gulf for their livelihoods,”  said Minor Sinclair, director of Oxfam’s United States Regional Office.  “It was true with Katrina and it’s true now---communities need to be part of the solution and part of making sure it never happens again.” 

Oxfam is working to ensure the voices from those communities are heard, convening meetings with community members and state and federal officials along the coast, working to have Oxfam partners represented in the media coverage of this disaster, and bringing coastal residents to Washington, DC to testify before congress and meet with elected officials. While BP’s establishment of the $20-billion escrow account for those affected by the spill will help, there is for those affected by the spill, there is much work to be done to ensure that those funds actually make it to their intended recipients, unlike with previous recovery efforts, and that community voices are continually heard in the recovery process.

And while there is serious concern among those most directly affected by the disaster, there is still significant resolve to continue living their lives and come back from this as they have come back from so many disasters before.

“I think it’s serious what’s happening here,” said Duncan. “We don’t know the effect of this, nobody don’t know how long the effect is going to be. (But) whatever we got to do, we got to do.”