The Last Haul: Stalked by Oil, Gulf Coast Fishermen Grab Everything They Can

Oystermen, fishermen, and shrimpers around Apalachicola Bay—where seafood is an $80 million a year business—share thoughts about their drastically altered lives, the reason for their overfishing, and the Faustian bargain that's been struck with BP.

Hand-painted signs for “Fresh Shrimp by Capt. Glen” hook travelers coming off of U.S. Route 98, which runs along the Gulf Coast of the Florida Panhandle and into Mississippi. Down a marina road in Carrabelle, Fla., an Igloo cooler sits on a dock in front of a weathered vessel called “Tressie and Chance.” Judy Bufkin and her son Capt. Glen finish up with a customer who bought 15 pounds of shrimp at $5 a pound for Memorial Day Weekend. The enormous Gulf Coast shrimp aren’t yet eight hours old, fresh from Glen’s overnight haul. “I should have hung onto the whole catch to sell here, we are going to sell out before this afternoon,” he says to his mother.

Glen’s piece of the dock is usually thick with tourists, but over the last few days plenty of locals have stopped by in preparation for the annual Dog Island “White Trash Bash,” a huge cookout held on one of the nearby sand islands. This year, a local tycoon bought some property, flooded part of it for a “mud bog” – a 4X4 truck playground — and hired some rock bands for a party expected to draw 10,000 people. Shrimp, oysters, crab, and crawfish are always on the menu, and people are stocking up. Since the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon, Glen and his brother Bobby have only missed three nights of shrimping. “We’ve been hitting it hard,” says Glen of the breakneck pace. “We have no way of knowing if these closures are going to come this way, so we’re getting what we can now.”

North and west, Louisiana offers a worst case scenario. Big seafood is a $2.4 billion a year business here, but more than a quarter of the Gulf fishing and oystering waters were shut down, the workplaces for generations of fishermen, shrimpers, crabbers, oystermen, and charter guides. The areas that remained open weren’t even being worked to capacity. Seafood was thought to be tainted, even when it wasn’t. BP was paying as much as $6,000 to captains who retrofit their boats with booms and worked as oil skimmers. So families who’ve fished the Gulf of Mexico for 100 years were employed by the company that destroyed their livelihoods. Often times the contracts with BP banned them from discussing their Faustian bargains with the media. Nevertheless, through Memorial Day Weekend, Fast Company found some Gulf Coast workers who were eager to share scenes and thoughts about their drastically altered lives. The story was far more diverse than the one represented mostly by images of oily marshes and crude-stained beach scenes that dominate the 24-hour news cycle.

With Louisiana effectively shut down, demand had fallen squarely on oystermen, fishermen, and shrimpers around Apalachicola Bay, where seafood is an $80 million a year business. And business was booming. Fishing season started 11 days early and the usual bag limit on oyster was increased to 20 – to get that much in time to make a 2 p.m. dockside market call took an unprecedented level of backbreaking work cutting, raking, hauling, and sorting oysters.

Oyster grounds that were usually closed at this time a year (so oysters could grow and multiply for the next season), were opened. A kind of looting mentality set in as captains and dock workers filled truck after truck with fresh seafood bound for restaurants and markets far beyond their usual territory.
In a week, tar balls would start washing up on Pensacola beach. And as giant crude slicks closed in on Florida’s West Coast, it became clear that the Panhandle’s fertile fishing grounds were probably doomed – if the oil didn’t get them, then the scramble to grab every last untainted batch of seafood would.

For wholesalers like David Barber in East Point, Fla., business was booming. Barber sat on the deck of his new seafood restaurant located next door to his oyster house docks along U.S. Route 98. The grand opening was just a few days away, and the timing of this BP spill weighed heavy.

“The thought was we better get [oysters] and make some money while we still can, before the oil gets here. I wasn’t necessarily for it,” Barber says of the early starting season. “I didn’t want to sell everything we got and then starve the rest of the summer. If we don’t get the oil, we wouldn’t have any oysters to sell because we caught them all up, and then sold them too quick.”

Florida oystermen like Barber were making about $4 more a bag ($19 to $20 a bag vs. $16 a bag last season), but with the increased demand, they were working more days. “In a normal season, I might only get enough orders to have these guys [his fishermen] go out and oyster for four days and then have to cut them off, but right now we’re getting orders from all over, people I normally don’t sell to because they can’t get Louisiana oysters,” Barber says. The only time the pace slowed was when BP held weeklong courses in laying boom and other skills for fishermen who thought they might eventually work as cleanup crews. When courses ended, the guys were back in the bay bringing in catch.

Along the Forgotten Coast in Port St. Joe, docks usually reserved for shrimpers were leased out to BP, and in one lot, a semi-truck was being loaded with protective boom bound for Louisiana. But the shrimp industry was thriving in Florida waters still untainted by oil. In general, shrimp spawn fast and the industry wasn’t threatened by overfishing like the oysters. The oil – and even the dispersant being used by BP despite government orders to the contrary – was a phantom menace. Nevertheless, Florida shrimpers scrambled fill the void left by Louisiana fishermen.

Edward Wood Jr., of Wood’s Fisheries is a fourth generation shrimper and wholesaler who purchases shrimp up and down the Coast. At a dock next door to BP’s makeshift headquarters, he had boats from all over the gulf dropping off their catches. Back in Christmas, 2009, shrimp were at an all time low price in markets across the U.S. But heading into Memorial Day weekend, prices were at an all-time high. On the other end, Wood could barely keep up with orders from his buyers who were eager to stock up on what could be the last haul.

Wood said a Louisiana crew could buy a Florida license and shrimp here, but with BP renting out boats for up to $6,000 a day “to drive some boom around the Gulf in circles, who’s going to come shrimp?” he said. “Think about it: Not only are we going to have limited areas to shrimp, but BP is about to pay the majority of the fleet not to shrimp.” From the wholesaler’s standpoint, “We’re about to get starved out or at the very least pay the highest prices in 20 years,” Wood said. At the same time, it fell upon him and those like him to convince consumers their product was safe.  Should visitors or anyone who buys seafood from the gulf get that idea that oil had tainted gulf seafood, “That would be catastrophic to the industry.”

At press time, Florida Governor Charlie Crist was deciding how to spend a $25 million dollar payment from BP. The early thinking was that he’d sink it into TV ads touting Florida’s still-clean beaches and untainted seafood. (Some of the ads are now running.) Officials from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection issued statements assuring the public that most of the waters were safe for fishing. All Federal closures of fishing zones include buffer zones between spotted oil and clean water, some stretching up to 12 miles wide. Officials patrol and sample water along the buffer lines to track changes. Fishermen are kept in check from entering any of the closed zones by fixed GPS technology required to be installed on board any federally licensed vessel. If a boat crosses any part of the no-fish zone, they are flagged and charged a $30,000 fine. Plus, their catch is confiscated, and the boat is docked.

Still, as time passed, it became less likely that any of this would have an effect on hotel reservations or business at local bars and restaurants. For the tourism industry, this was the last haul, too.

For his part, Edward Wood started preparing for inevitable closures of Florida waters – one of the few to do so before Florida became a hot zone. He stepped up production at his inland properties of ponds for farm raised shrimp. “For the first time in a decade there is a market that wants U.S. farm-raised shrimp based on U.S. water standards, and actually the store level cares,” Wood said. His fisheries’ farm-raised product currently sports a “green buyers label” — only one out of four farms in the world have that label, for which standards are set by the California-based Fish Wise and the Seafood Watch program out of Monterey Bay Aquarium. Wood went “green” in 2009 when Target announced it would no longer carry products fixed with a “red” buyer’s label, signifying a “don’t buy” recommendation. Safeway and Walmart followed suit. In other words, Wood’s early adoption of sustainable shrimping might save at least part of his business from the oil disaster.

But whatever Florida fishermen did to stay ahead of the oil, they were constantly haunted by reports of the destruction being wrought on Louisiana. There, a fisherman named Billy — who asked that we not use his last name for fear of losing future employment — worked on a boat called “The Retriever,” which had returned from a seven-day fishing trip with the holds stuffed full. A helicopter appeared, came in and Coast Guard circled the boat while announcing the closure of the waters they’d just fished. They threw everything overboard and watched their last haul sink to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, the days’ catch and a thousand pounds of fish gone.
Another fisherman who asked to remain anonymous, said he rented his boat and services out to BP for oil cleaning and never had a chance to go out for one last haul before the oil shut down his patch of Gulf. “For the first time in 30 years I had to buy shrimp from another shrimper to stock my freezer,” he said. “I’m a 4th generation shrimp boat Captain, never in my life did I think I would ever have to go and find shrimp from someone else.”

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