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Troubled Waters

Waiting Out the Oil Spill

Longtime Gulf Coast fishermen worry about their futures.

Gulf Coast Fisherman

Commercial fisherman Thomas Gonzales, 72, of Delacroix, LA., builds crab traps he can't use due to the Gulf Coast oil spill and subsequent fishing ban. He has accepted a $5,000 check from BP as a form of compensation. — Melissa Golden

Henry Martinez, a shrimper with bright white hair and a hefty belly, chuckles at the mention of the word “retirement.”

A pension is not a luxury afforded to small-town fishermen like Martinez, who has spent most of his 67 years on a family boat, combing the bayous for crabs and shrimp.

"I ain't getting off the boat until I die," he says.

Yet Martinez has had no choice but to stay off his boat since April 30, when the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries banned commerce in most coastal waters east of the Mississippi River. The measure came in response to the blowout of BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig, which has been spilling oil into the Gulf of Mexico to the tune of 210,000 gallons per day.

Martinez was killing time last week with a group of other idled fishermen—several of them in their 50s and 60s—inside a shop that stands near a small boat launch in Delacroix, a tiny fishing community about 30 miles southeast of New Orleans.

“Most of us will work till we drop dead,” said 65-year-old Eugene Anglada. “But right now we’re working nothing. We’re waiting.”

It is difficult to predict the full extent of damage from the spill, which President Obama has called “a potentially unprecedented environmental disaster.” In the meantime, Martinez and Anglada are among thousands of commercial fishermen suffering the immediate financial consequences of the disaster.

Federal waters from Louisiana to the Florida panhandle have been closed to fishing, and states have shut down territory closer to shore at a time of year when the seafood industry hauls in the bulk of its income. Spring is prime season for shrimp and crabs and other seafood in the gulf.

A blow to longtime fishermen

The oil spill could be especially devastating for Martinez and other older fishermen, many of whom have spent their entire lives on the water and have no other marketable skills.

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