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Puerto Vallarta News NetworkEditorials | Environmental 

Forgotten: Gulf of Mexico Fishermen Fear the Future
email this pageprint this pageemail usAndrew Gully Agence France-Presse
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October 20, 2010

Fisherman Gary Matherne(C) and his two sons fish for blue crap in the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary near Port Fourchon, Louisiana, in May 2010. (AFP/Getty Images/Scott Olson)
Washington Six months after the largest maritime oil spill, Gulf of Mexico fishing communities fear for their very future while critics say response efforts have evaporated faster than the toxic crude.

US President Barack Obama called it America's worst ever environmental disaster and promised to keep the boot on BP until it had compensated claimants and cleaned up every last drop of oil.

But with the media focus now elsewhere and not so much visible damage, the clean-up has been dramatically scaled back and fishermen still desperately wait for checks as they peer into an uncertain future.

The jury is still out on how much damage the 4.9 million barrels of oil that spewed out of the Macondo well did to the Gulf's fragile marshland ecology, but the human suffering is clear as the economic pain deepens.

"I'm very disappointed by where we're at six months on," Byron Encalade, president of the Louisiana Oysterman Association and of a fisheries cooperative in Plaquemines parish, told AFP.

"When you look at the fishing communities down here, they had 100 percent mortality on most of their oyster beds, so the community basically is out of business."

BP pledged to honor claims and has set up a 20-billion-dollar compensation fund, but in Encalade's small fishing village of some 300 people he reckons one in five are still to receive payment.

"That's far too many. It affects everything because it affects the whole economy," he said. "You have to have money circulating in the local economy for these communities to sustain themselves."

Obama lifted a moratorium on deepwater drilling last week, six weeks early, to breathe new life into the local economy, which was hit by simultaneous strikes on its three main industries: oil, tourism and fishing.

But Jonathan Henderson of the Gulf Restoration Network, which has been working to protect and restore the natural resources of the Gulf of Mexico since 1994, told AFP this was premature.

"There needs to be equipment in place, there needs to be training in place, there needs to be a strategic, thoughtful analysis of how to combat the next massive blowout like the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the most effective way possible, and that has not happened yet."

Eleven workers were killed on April 20 when BP's Deepwater Horizon rig exploded off Louisiana. The environmental damage began two days later when the giant structure sank to the bottom of the Gulf, rupturing the main pipe.

Initially there were no reports of a major leak, but that soon changed and a massive response effort swung into gear as a slick the size of a small country developed on the surface.

A response team that numbered almost 50,000 at the height of the disaster has been scaled back to almost 13,000 since the well was capped in July.

Hundreds of local fishing boats once employed by BP in its Vessels of Opportunity clean-up program now lie idle in the harbor, but Henderson said he was still astonished at the amount of oil out there on his regular flyovers.

"The oil was by and large dispersed but it didn't disappear, it's still on the ocean floor and it's still washing up every single day on our beaches, in our wetlands from Louisiana to Florida.

"This disaster is definitely still going on. Time will tell, time will make people realize. What I am fearful will happen is that there will be an impact on species, on fishery populations, that could be completely devastating."

Lieutenant Ana Thorsson of the US Coast Guard, which is leading the federal response, admitted operations had been scaled back but vowed they would be there until the clean-up was finished.

"We are still seeing some tar balls and things like that and we continue to clean the marshes and the shore," she told AFP.

Seventy percent of the waters once closed to fishing remain off limits, and though some now get a decent catch, Encalade said an urgent drive was required to convince the American public it was safe to eat.

"I know they are testing and everything but they are going to have to have an aggressive outreach to publicize this information. Smelling seafood and looking at seafood is just not going to get it done."

Louisiana's fishing industry has been valued at up to three billion dollars and the stricken state is the source of one third of the seafood consumed in the United States.

BP, meanwhile, appears to have steered its way out of big financial trouble, although that could change if it is found guilty of gross negligence at a massive civil trial penciled in to start next June.

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