More than four years after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, stories of hard luck and poor health are not hard to find in Bayou La Batre, a small Alabama fishing village known as the state’s seafood capital.
Residents mostly work blue-collar jobs; they’re welders, fishers, oyster shuckers, crab pickers, and deckhands for the town’s seafood processors and shipbuilders. About one-third of the townspeople are Vietnamese who started migrating here in the 1970s. There’s an easy friendliness here along the coast: Townspeople say hello to everyone they walk past, and residents greet each other with hugs and kisses, demanding updates about children and grandchildren and trading fish stories.
More than a quarter of Bayou La Batre’s 2,558 residents were already living in poverty in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina sent a 16-foot storm surge down the town’s two main highways and into its curving side streets. Then, on April 20, 2010, just as most residents had recovered from the devastation, BP’s Macondo oil well blew and decimated the town’s economy again as it gushed for three months. By the time the well was capped, Gulf waters had become polluted with an estimated 210 million gallons of oil and 1.8 million gallons of Corexit, a dispersant designed to break up and sink the oil. (Bayou La Batre is featured in The Great Invisible, a documentary on the Deepwater Horizon disaster that premieres on Oct. 29 and was produced by Participant Media, TakePart's parent company.)
Last month, in a 153-page ruling, a New Orleans federal judge found that BP had acted with “gross negligence” in the 2010 spill, though the penalty phase of the trial won’t begin until January.
Perhaps worse than the spill, locals say, was the uncertainty that followed it. The neighbors who worked on the cleanup and fell sick. The BP claim-payments process that pays and doesn’t pay in an almost random way. The fish and seafood populations that now have taken a mysterious nosedive.
Fisher Pierre Fearn, 50, used to catch 50 or 60 flounder a night. Now he’ll be lucky to catch that many a year, he says. Some people argue that it’s logical that bottom feeders like flounder are more likely to be affected by the oil sunk to the bottom by dispersants. But because flounder also head into deep water in late fall to lay eggs, the root of the problem could also be in those spawning grounds.
Fearn shrugs as he stands in front of a freezer filled with shrimp and crab at the seafood office where he has just sold that day’s catch. “So much is unknown,” he says. “All I know is that something’s not right.”
A short drive away, down narrow roads lined with tall needle pines, fisher Nello Barbour, 66, complains of a recent rotten evening of fishing: He put 240 feet of net into the water and landed only four flounder. He and his son spent $30 on gas and made $12 on the fish, he says as he sits on the front porch of the home of Ricky and Janice Collier, whose 25-year family business, P&J Seafood, is failing because there are few fish to process and no oysters.
Every night, P&J’s shuckers call Ricky Collier, 62, to see if he’ll have work for them the next morning. It breaks his heart to tell them no. But in the past three weeks, he’s gotten oysters once—from Louisiana, the only place along the Gulf harvesting any.
“Alabama used to have way more oysters than anybody,” he says. “Now we don’t have anything.”
As a result of the shortage, wholesalers like Collier pay double what they used to for oysters.