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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.

“This is all they know,” said Harlon Pearce Jr., 64, chairman of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board. “We do have a lot of 50-plus people in our industry, and they’re concerned.”

Business is holding up so far for Pearce, who runs a seafood processing and distribution company. Waters west of the Mississippi are still open to fishermen, and the spill has incited a buying frenzy among restaurateurs and others who fear the spill will shrink the overall seafood supply.

“Things are OK right now,” Pearce said. “But things could change quickly.”

The oil sheen from BP’s rig spreads about 1,200 square miles over the gulf. It took until Thursday for the first drops to reach Louisiana, which supplies more than a fifth of the nation’s commercial seafood. There is no telling how much oil will reach shore or how much of the state’s seafood population it might ultimately kill before BP figures out how to cap the spurting oil.

“Things at this point are constantly evolving,” said Bo Boehringer, a spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. “We have biologists on the ground assessing the situation.”

BP has said that it will reimburse qualified fishermen for any income lost because of the spill, and the company has also offered to hire some fishermen to assist in the clean-up effort—including Henry Martinez.

Nevertheless, Martinez remains worried about the long-term effect of oil on the seafood crop.

“If it takes seven or eight years to come back, I don’t have seven or eight years. I’ll be 68 years old soon enough,” he said, describing the aches and pains that already make it difficult for him to haul in his catch. “I have trouble with the bones.”

Problems for new immigrants

Meanwhile, Cuong Nguyen, 62, and his wife, Hgua Nguyen, 58, do not have time to think about the future. The Nguyens are immigrants from Vietnam who speak little English, a fact that has made it difficult for the couple to deal with the spill.

Brian Vu, a caseworker with Vietnamese advocacy group Boat People S.O.S., has acted as a middleman between the Nguyens, BP and a bank that controls a business loan the couple took out to recover from Hurricane Katrina. Vu has asked the bank to defer loan payments, which will be difficult to make without money from shrimping, the Nguyens’ sole source of income.

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