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A Fisherman’s New Job: Skimming Oil

‘We might not fish no more’

'Gulf Coast Fisherman Ponders a Life Without Shrimp.' Watch

Louisiana’s St. Bernard Parish is thick with people bearing the family name Robin, descendants of a Canary Islands woman who moved here in the 1770s. Ever since, many Robins have earned their living from the sea as fishermen.

But what very few Robins are doing these days is fishing.

With broad areas of the Gulf of Mexico closed by the federal government because of the oil spill, fifth-generation fisherman Charles Robin III, 50, is among the throngs of idled local people who have reluctantly accepted work from BP to clean the shoreline and skim for oil.

“This oil spill, I tell you, it’s wrecking everybody,” says Robin, pronouncing “oil” like “erl” in his languorous drawl, a distinct accent common in St. Bernard Parish.

“We know the deal with a hurricane,” he says. “We get up, lick our wounds, pick up the pieces and get going. Here, we don’t know what the long-term effects are. We might not fish no more.”

After training for 12 hours a day for several weeks and being on call every day, Robin has settled into a work cycle of four days on, two days off. He and the crew of his fishing boat, the Ellie Margaret, search for oil in the waters of Breton Sound and around the Chandeleur Islands, but they have only come across one large swath of the spill.

What about the future?

The money has been fairly good­—he currently makes as much or more than he would in a typical week of fishing. “It’s good for this week, but what about five years from now?” he asks.

“You fish hard or you fish easy. When you get older, you shouldn’t have to make as much money because you’re not raising a family.”

The capping of BP’s well is “good news,” he says. But he can’t say yet how it might affect the duration of his work with the oil company.

That work in the meantime has left him with a serious injury, a mangled little finger on his left hand. It got caught in a winch as the boat trawled for oil balls. He’s waiting for a second opinion as to whether part of it will have to be amputated.

“The thing is that I’ve been doing the same thing for 40 years, and I lost my edge for a split second,” he says. “With having the oil spill on my mind, I lost my edge. I let my guard down … and it cost me my finger.”

In the same period, his brother, Ricky Robin, also a legacy fisherman, had to undergo emergency quadruple-bypass surgery. Robin sees the stress of the oil spill as a contributing factor.

Big family, proud culture

Robin’s family is part of the St. Bernard Parish community known as the Isleños (“islanders” in Spanish), after Canary Islanders who settled in Louisiana starting in 1778 during Spanish colonial rule. The Isleño people are fiercely proud of their heritage and way of life.

Robin had a merchant seaman ancestor, Gillis Robin, who married into the Isleños culture. The way he tells it, Gillis was a merchant seaman, and while in port in Cuba, he “saw this Spanish gal who was coming across from the Canary Islands. They come here and start a family.”

Now, Robins are everywhere in St. Bernard Parish. “We’re a big family,” he says. “You go down the road, we got a lot of Robins.”

Robin’s father was a fisherman and boat builder, and Robin’s two adult sons, Charles Robin IV, 28, and Ross, 23, are both in the trade. (Robin’s youngest son, Gabriel, is 14.)

What worries Robin is the long-term effect the spill will have on his sons, his profession and his community.

“They got a saying—says, ‘Old fishermen never die, they just fade away.’ A fisherman never retires. He dies with it. That’s how my grandfather was and how my daddy was. You make your own way in life.”

“My son Ross said, ‘If I can’t fish, I may as well be somewhere else,’ ” Robin says. “It made me sad.”

Molly Reid is an arts, culture and environment reporter based in New Orleans. Her work appears regularly in the Times-Picayune.