Today I waded into the future waters of Barataria Bay with oystermen Nick Collins, Jules Melancon and Jim Gossen, President & CEO of Louisiana Foods Global Seafood Source (the guy that buys the oysters the rest of us eat) as well as writer Rowan Jacobsen, author of the just released Shadows on the Gulf, the spring Gulf sun was bright, the future of oysters less so.
For hundreds of years oysters have been a dietary delight of bayou folks – first the native Americans, then Cajuns, and lately the rest of us. But these crusty bivalves are more than just haute cuisine on the half-shell. Stoically they sit in the marsh, filtering the crossing current, like cattle grazing a pasture, for phytoplankton. Oysters have been unflatteringly referred to as ‘kidneys of the sea’, there’s some biological truth to that slight. They are, in the purest sense, what they eat. Perhaps more over, the place they flourish – the shallow bayou fertilized waters of the Gulf Coast – ARE the kidneys, and wombs, of the sea.
In turn oysters are to the Gulf coastal wetlands what canaries are to coal mines, when the bayou-marsh environment is healthy they sing a gastronomic song like no other, but their song sours with the slightest altercation in that environment. Last April’s BP oil disaster sent over 200 million gallons of light crude into the Gulf and a nice slice of that swept into the Louisiana bayou-marsh environment – prime oyster habitat. Then BP iced the cake with at least 2 million** gallons of toxic dispersant (Corexit). To off-set them both the state (Louisiana) unleashed millions of gallons of Mississippi River water (its own chemical soup) into the bayou, ostensibly to flush the pollutants out or keep them out – good idea, bad science. The impact: oysters not only sang their swan song, they were also in the midst of producing a new generation of singers. For now, silence.
Exactly why the oysters are dying and dead is a nasty case of finger pointing:
Louisiana to spend $12 million on wetlands, oyster beds, and send BP the bill – By Mark Schleifstein, The Times-Picayune
“For months and months, we’ve all watched BP spend millions of dollars on commercials,” said Robert Barham, secretary of the Department of Wildlife & Fisheries. “Time after time, they say, ‘We’re here for the long haul. We’re going to make it right.”
“Make it right” is perhaps one of the most ambiguous catch phrases to be spun out of the BP-Obama PR machine. What does it really mean? Everyone from Oystermen to hotel owners to even BP’s own cleanup workers seem clueless to define it – the beauty of a great media catch-phrase.
Cajun oysterman Nick Collins is uncertain anyone can make this right as he dumps another basket of dead oysters on the deck – nearly a year has passed since the BP oil disaster and the Collins family’s 100-year-old oyster reefs near Grand Isle are virtually a marine mortuary. Nick hauled four baskets of oysters up from four separate locations for us to see, an estimated 2,500 oysters, we found ten live bivalves. This time of year he said they should be pulling 60-100 sacks of oysters a day for market off this reef. That’s thousand of live oysters.
“See all dees, if dey where birds, a couple thousand foat’n here,” Nick looks from the table piled with dead grey-brown oysters out across the water from where they were just drawn, “den people woulds be really upset. But dey don’t float dey just sit dead on da bottom.”
Absolutely! It was like someone just slapped me upside the head: Imagine a couple thousand dead pelicans floating on the surface – a media frenzy! A BP nightmare. Then we might start understanding what it means to “Make it right.”
** BP’s officially acknowledged figure for release of the toxic dispersant Corexit 9500 (initially) and later Corexit 9527 has been 1.8 million gallons – including that released at the Macondo well head some 5,000 feet down on the Gulf seafloor – before the well was capped on July 15, 2010. Many contend, including Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), this figure is far less than was actually dispersed by BP. “On June 16, Markey notes, BP told the Coast Guard that its use of Corexit had never exceeded 3,365 gallons in any recent day. Yet e-mails to Congress told a different story. In fighting the Gulf oil spill on June 12 and 13, the e-mails noted, BP used 14,305 gallons 36,000 gallons respectively.” It was also illegal to spray the toxic dispersant in the marshes or at night – both of which were done, as countless shrimpers, oystermen, Vessels of Opportunity capitans and coastal residence will swear – they heard the planes at night and in some cases were sprayed upon. The real volume only BP knows and with them it remains.
One additional note: By the EPA’s own tests, Corexit is more toxic and less effective than 12 other products on the market. BP, however, refused to comply with the EPA demand to halt its use, saying no other manufacturers could meet its overwhelming Gulf needs. The Obama administration ultimately capitulated.