Oil in the Gulf puts many livelihoods in limbo
HOPEDALE, La. — When Kenny LeFebvre is out of work, so are the two men who help him haul glistening blue crabs from the waters he has fished since he quit school at 14. So are his sister and brother-in-law, who sell him bait, buy back the catch, pack it up, then resell it to buyers who put it on dinner tables in Maryland.
And so are thousands of other families just like theirs in some of the world’s richest fishing grounds, livelihoods in limbo as winds from exactly the wrong direction — the southeast — threaten to push an oil slick the size of Puerto Rico ever closer to the fragile, fingerlike bayous.
“I don’t know what I’ll do. I really don’t,’’ said LeFebvre, who unloaded 2,100 pounds of crab about 20 minutes before natural resource officials ordered the fishing zones in St. Bernard Parish closed. There was no sign of oil yet. Not even a whiff in the breeze. And the crabs had just started biting.
Yesterday, federal authorities banned commercial and recreational fishing over a wide swath of the Gulf of Mexico, from the mouth of the Mississippi to the Florida Panhandle, for at least the next 10 days. Now, the 600 traps LeFebvre dropped Friday morning will sit uncollected for weeks, he figures. Maybe months. Maybe years.
How he will support six children, ages 9 to 18, is beyond his ability to imagine.
“I’m 35. I ain’t never drove a nail in my life,’’ he said. “This is what I know, right here. We starved all winter, and we was just getting to where we was making money and getting back on our feet.’’
More than birds and fish lie in the path of the massive oil slick threatening the Gulf Coast from Florida to Texas: A centuries-old way of life that’s endured dozens of hurricanes is now facing the possibility of environmental and economic disaster.
Water sustains the region’s economy like blood in the body. Commercial and sport fishing businesses support dock services, tackle shops, and gas stations. Restaurants are Louisiana’s largest private-sector employer, with 140,000 workers and a direct annual economic impact of $5 billion.
Wendy Waren, vice president of the Louisiana Restaurant Association, said nearly two-thirds of the state’s restaurants serve some type of seafood.
Then there are some of the busiest shipping ports in the world, moving oil from offshore rigs up the Mississippi and Midwestern grain out to sea to feed the rest of the world.
The Port of Gulfport in Mississippi is the nation’s second-largest import handler for green fruit, with Central American bananas from Chiquita and Dole accounting for 74 percent of its imported cargo in 2007.
The Port of New Orleans handled 73 million tons of cargo in 2008, including coffee from South America and steel from Japan, Russia, Brazil, and Mexico. Three cruise ships also dock there, handling more than 600,000 passengers a year.
Upriver is the Port of South Louisiana, the nation’s busiest with 224 million tons of cargo a year — mostly grain and other agricultural commodities, and chemicals from the scores of plants that line the river.
On tiny Grand Isle, which boasts Louisiana’s only white sand beaches, the manager of the Island Paradise Suites is fretting about what could happen this summer.