Gulf Coast Fishermen Challenge US Government over Dispersants

Story by Dahr Jamail, Photography by Erika Blumenfeld, t r u t h o u t | Report

Photo by Erika Blumenfeld © 2010

Commercial Fishing communities in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Florida have united to demand that local, state, and federal agencies force BP to discontinue the use of toxic dispersants and conduct better testing before reopening fishing waters.

“We need to get our government to get a handle on this situation and shut down our fishing waters until they test for dispersants, and get the use of dispersants stopped unless they can prove to us they are not harmful,” Kathy Birren, a spokesperson for commercial fishermen in Florida, told Truthout, “We are seeing fish kills. They [US Government and BP] are covering this all up.”

Since the BP oil disaster began in late April, the secretary of Louisiana’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) was granted emergency powers to open and close fishing areas. The department recently announced the opening of three shrimp management zones for August 16. These areas include zones that have been severely affected by the oil disaster. Dates were also set to open fishing for sea trout and harvesting oysters.

These moves are being questioned by commercial fishermen, who are skeptical of the motives of the state and federal governments’ decision to begin reopening fishing areas that had been closed by the oil disaster.

Clint Guidry is a Louisiana fisherman and on the Board of Directors of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, as well as being the Shrimp Harvester Representative on the Louisiana Shrimp Task Force created by Executive Order of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.

“The government, both state and federal, is pushing to open all these fishing areas back up and say it is OK, but this is a load of shit,” Guidry, who is from Lafitte, Louisiana, told Truthout, “It’s not OK. They claim 75 percent of the oil is gone or accounted for, but there’s still oil coming in. There is more oil in many of our bays, right now, than there has ever been.”

Guidry and Birren believe it is far too early for the state or federal governments to allow fishing to resume without more testing for oil and dispersant contamination.

“The government is not testing fish for dispersant,” Birren, who is from Hernando Beach, Florida, said. She pointed out that while the west coast of Florida remains largely unaffected by the oil disaster so far, she is concerned about how the Gulf seafood market is being deleteriously affected by the oil disaster.

Her main concern is with the health of people living on the coast. Another of her concerns is that without better testing, if contaminated seafood is sold and makes someone sick, the entire market will collapse.

“We know the only test they are doing is a smell test on fish,” Birren added, “There are lots of things you can be hurt by you can’t smell. You’re taking these fish and shrimp and putting them on the market, and all of the sudden you have a very serious situation. Our fish are healthy, but if other Gulf States are putting contaminated seafood on the market, we’ll lose our market and the trust in the industry. They’ve opened up many fishing areas very recently, and it’s all in the name of money and minimizing BP’s liability.”

Regarding BP, Birren said, “They are letting the person who committed the crime clean up the crime scene.”

Along with Birren and Guidry, commercial fishermen from Alabama and Mississippi met last week in Biloxi to discuss other unresolved problems associated from the BP oil disaster such as the difficulty of processing claims, unfair hiring practices of the BP Vessels of Opportunity (VOO) Program, and lack of jobs.

In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon explosion on April 20, more than 30,000 commercial fishermen and seafood industry related jobs have been lost. Shrimp factories and processors are refusing to buy daily catches due to the negative perceptions of health hazards regarding Gulf seafood.

This newfound alliance of Gulf coast commercial fishermen is also concerned with the overall health of the Gulf Coast fisheries, as they feel they have been “forever altered as 2 million gallons of chemical dispersants have been sprayed. Studies have shown dispersants mixed with oil are more hazardous than oil itself due to ability for spawning fish to consume small droplets of oil.”

Fishermen in the four aforementioned states are also concerned about the BP Claim process, stating that it has become “increasingly difficult as no documentation is given to claimant,” and, “individual claim amounts have decreased by 80%.”

Demands of the Commercial Fishing community from Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida include closing “all fisheries waters until harvests go through chemical dispersant testing,” as well as having “the EPA and Coast Guard to discontinue current chemical dispersant use and test all seafood and fisheries with updated testing protocols.” The group also wants local commercial fishermen to be hired and trained “for all hazardous testing initiatives and clean-up work in a culturally competent manner,” and for “Federal, state and local agencies to develop community based health centers to service at-risk seafood industry population, administer blood tests for those who are exposed to dispersants and oil-clean up.”

The main concern right now is that the federal government is continuing to allow BP to use the toxic dispersants.

Hugh Kaufman, an EPA Whistleblower who has been warning about the high toxicity of the dispersants BP has been using with both Coast Guard and EPA approval, stated on MSNBC on August 4:

“The dispersants, mixed with the oil and the water, is extremely toxic. The only real purpose of using so many dispersants on the oil is to cover up the volume of oil that was released from that well. That and lying about how much [oil] was coming out, was a mechanism to help BP save billions of dollars in fines.”

Kaufman went on to say that dispersants should never have been used, and added, “I was listening to some of the “experts” at universities being paid by BP who are saying that the oil has disappeared. It hasn’t disappeared. It’s throughout thousands of square miles in the Gulf mixed with the dispersants. And because the temperatures down there are so cold, they’re going to be around for decades.”

Kaufman’s concerns mirror those of the commercial fisherman, as he concluded, “We’ve now poisoned thousands of square miles of the Gulf, and we have to recognize that and take precautions so that we can minimize the damages we have done.”

Guidry is also calling for immediate testing for dispersants before any fisheries can be opened in the Gulf.

“Without any clear cut scientific testing that would say it [fish/shrimp] is safe from dispersants, we can’t do this,” he explained, “The oil didn’t just go away overnight, and they have huge concerns about the cleanup.”

Guidry told Truthout that all the commercial spokespeople at the meeting last week shared this concern: “It seems the feds are more concerned with limiting BP’s liability than anything else.”

Guidry feels that so far, all of the interim National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reports “are covering up health problems. There is an effort by BP and the feds to relieve BP of the responsibility of paying respiratory illness claims. We’re going to wind up with a bunch of sick people across the Gulf before this is over, and they’ll have no recourse. It’s already happening. Some of the fishermen who went to West Jefferson hospital when this thing first started, they were out at the source and they were chemically exposed. That just got covered up like it was nothing, and blamed on food, heat stress, but it was like it all went away, and they buried it. We’re going to see health problems in the next five to 20 years and BP is relieved of the responsibility and I just don’t think that is right.”

Birren also told Truthout she is concerned that the state of Florida might be playing a role in allowing BP to continue to use dispersants in order to hide the oil from tourists in an effort to protect the state’s multi-billion dollar tourist industry.

She said that supposedly BP had stopped using the dispersants, “But we have fishermen in the VOO program taking pictures of them using it, and people still getting sick from exposure. They are hiring companies to come in and use dispersant at night. You see the oil in the day, and then next morning it’s gone. The government isn’t pushing to have this stopped even though they know this is going on. They are doing it because of money, and our economy.”

Birren also told Truthout that fishermen she knows who are speaking out against BP dispersant practices “are getting death threats and notes on their cars saying you better watch out, because there are people above us who want to keep this quiet. But I know entire families who are sick because of the dispersants.”

Birren does not believe the crisis is over, and believes the Gulf and Inland waters have been “prematurely re-opened to fishing.”

She and the coalition of commercial fishermen she and Guidry are a part of are concerned about the credibility of Gulf Coast fishermen being damaged by contaminated seafood being delivered to the market. Birren also wrote, “As fisherman, we know that the use of dispersants has made this crisis vastly worse for everyone. It is time that government step up and protect us, our Gulf and the American public from further, and possibly irreversible harm.”

“It’s now down to regular people like me trying to do what the government should be doing to take care of us,” she told Truthout, “It’s awful, it’s really bad. If Obama is not going to be a strong enough president to protect us, we’ll have to do it ourselves. We’re on our own down here.”

Guidry told Truthout that fishermen he is talking with are reporting the ongoing use of dispersants as well.

“They [US Government] are trying to just let BP off, and this is like nothing I’ve seen before,” he explained, “People with that much money that can bury the American people with the blessing of the federal government. They [BP] can buy all the local, state, and federal officials, and the crisis is still happening. The feds and BP are wishing it away. I wish we could do that, but we can’t. There’s going to be a lot of hard work, suffering, and misery before this is over, and it’s not over by a long shot.”