The view from down under

By Philip Conkling | Feb 23, 2012
Photo by: Philip Conkling

If one of the best means of gaining perspective on American life is from an island offshore, then one of the best views of the Maine coast is from the shores of other islands and coastlines.

Recently, we visited Tangier Island in the Chesapeake and the islands of the Outer Banks; last week we headed south to visit the bayou and barrier islands of Louisiana. The purpose of these travels is to survey issues facing natural resource dependent communities along the coastlines of America as part of a national working waterfront coalition initiative the Island Institute is helping to sponsor.

One of the important lessons of these visits is a reminder of how far and favorably Maine’s “brand” has traveled around the coasts of this country. We think of ourselves as a small and impoverished state, and indeed that is Maine’s reality. But Maine’s lobster fishery is recognized everywhere not just for providing a good living for thousands of families along the coast, but also for pioneering conservation measures that continue to protect the future viability of Maine’s most iconic fishery.

Among government officials, Maine’s leadership in passing a constitutional referendum to provide tax breaks to protect commercial fishing properties along our coast and the public referenda that raised $7 million in bond funds to acquire permanent commercial fishing access has become an inspiring “first in the nation” example. Maine’s successful bond campaigns stimulated the passage of a similar, although much larger, $20 million bond package to provide working waterfront access along the North Carolina coast, where we were received as participants of a successful coalition-building strategy.

Commercial fishing, which is sometimes hailed as the last hunter-gatherer culture to survive in the modern world, has within the last decade also become one of the most intensively regulated industries in America. Americans increasingly want to know that our food is sustainably harvested, the more local the better. Simultaneously we are placing far more pressure on our coastlines for all kinds of other uses – for recreation and for second homes, as well as for energy development from offshore oil and wind. So for working waterfronts to thrive in the future, disparate interests increasingly need to learn how to accommodate one another’s often conflicting interests.

Which brings us to the seething cauldron of Louisiana’s coastal politics.

Although, Louisiana’s shrimp, crab and oyster harvests provide the economic and cultural backdrop for most of the state’s valuable inshore commercial fisheries, a visit to the barrier islands of Port Fourchon and Grand Isle is an eye-popping experience for anyone from Maine. Visualize a drive south and west from New Orleans for about two and a half hours on two-lane black top roads winding through intricate landscapes of bayou country. If you are headed to the southernmost margins of Louisiana’s coastline, which you can hardly think of as dry land since the water is everywhere lapping and eating away at the strips of ground and levees that are slowly settling, sea level appears to be a provisional concept. Think of the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike.

Along the canals that cut through the bayous, shrimp boats of all sizes and descriptions are tied to wharf pilings waiting for the swarms of shrimp that winter offshore to migrate to the coast to feed and be fed upon in the spring. Louisiana’s oyster boats have mostly moved elsewhere because of the state’s controversial policy of trying to rejuvenate coastal marshes against the encroachment of the sea, where miles and miles of canals have provided avenues of saltwater penetration far inland.

Louisiana’s coastal restoration program has required the construction of giant “diversions” that bring the big muddy waters of the Mississippi back into these wetlands to replenish sediment and build new deltas of higher ground that, not incidentally, will also provide a buffer of protection against hurricane-driven storm surges. Which makes sense for the vast majority of coastal property owners, except if you are an oysterman whose harvests are devastated by fresh water intrusions. The lord giveth and another lord taketh away.

Just when you think that you have reached the end of the road, a gigantic sinuous bridge rises up from the bayous like a mirage over the water. To the west is the oil depot of Port Fourchon, the hub for offshore oil platforms that rise up like intergalactic modules in the ocean of space offshore. Underneath the bridge spans, stretching far up into bayou country, are swarms of oil service boats and several large shipyards to support the politically powerful offshore oil business. Next to the scale of the oil economy here, shrimping looks... shrimpy.

After the new bridge swoops at right angles to the east, we are delivered to the spit of beach known as Grand Isle, where we look up Dean Blanchard, one of the largest shrimp processors in Louisiana. At one time Blanchard said he handled over 11 percent of all the shrimp that was sold in America. But that was long ago and in a different land, before consumers learned to love cheap, imported shrimp produced by the ton from East Asian and South American shrimp farms. And before the “dead zone” of oxygen starved waters at the mouth of the Mississippi River grew as large as the state of Rhode Island, destroying shrimping grounds along hundreds of square miles offshore. And before BP.

It is evident that the direct effects of the tragic Macondo Platform blow out and oil spill, however bad those long term effects may (or may not) prove to be, the federal government’s precautionary decision to close vast areas of Louisiana’s waters to all fishing during and long after the spill to protect public health has crippled the state’s fisheries. Although tourism on the white sandy beaches of the rest of the Gulf Coast has recovered, because we can all see the oil is not fouling the beaches, the same cannot be said for Louisiana’s fisheries. Markets for Louisiana’s shrimp, oysters and crabs remain depressed.

Meanwhile, many fishermen have turned from trying to harvest seafood, to trying to harvest part of the $20 billion BP set aside to pay compensation for lost business. The jockeying for advantage is intense. Billboards advertising litigation services line the roadways. Although the federal and state governments have certified that fish and shellfish is free of any trace of oil and other contaminants, some fishermen publicly insist that Louisiana seafood is still tainted in the short sighted hope that such a strategy will increase their cash settlements.

But lest we fall prey to facile stereotypes, it is also evident that the politics of energy and fish are deeply intertwined here. As Blanchard’s crew unloads 200,000 pounds of shrimp at his wharf, he pumps 15,000 gallons of fuel that comes from nearby offshore rigs aboard the shrimp vessel that is headed out into the Gulf for another 21-day voyage. Blanchard’s father and two brothers are in the offshore oil service business and he intends to diversify his Grand Isles holdings to enter the oil services business himself.

After weathering four hurricanes and a massive oil spill in the last seven years, there is little doubt that fishermen like Blanchard will remain on Louisiana’s narrow spits of working coastline, thrusting their jaws into the Gulf and daring anyone, or anything, to try and take their livelihoods away.

 

 

 

 

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