THIBODAUX — As crews try to stem the flow of crude from the explosion and fire that sank the rig Deepwater Horizon last week, local commercial fishermen are holding their breath while keeping their eyes on the Gulf of Mexico.
Eleven crewmen are missing and presumed dead as a result of the April 20 disaster.
As of Tuesday night no clear predictions could be made on precisely where an oil slick fed by a release from the sea floor of 42,000 gallons per day of crude — the equivalent of about five tanker truck loads — might end up.
“I am concerned,” said James Blanchard, a Houma fisherman who is the Louisiana representative for the Southern Shrimp Alliance, a national group for the shrimp industry. “We are waiting to see how much of an impact it is going to have. We won't know the full effects for some time.”
Louisiana's inshore shrimp season's opening date will be set by the Wildlife and Fisheries Commission May 6. At present, fishermen estimate that baby brown shrimp are already in the state's protected waters, or close to them. Of major concern is the prospect of oil entering those nursery areas.
Ranking officials are acknowledging the potential danger to Louisiana's coast.
U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., is already asking for hearings before the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
“This major accident and its potential implications to the environment need to be better understood,” she said in a news release. “The public deserves a full hearing on this matter to ensure that everything that can be done is being done to maximize worker safety and minimize environmental damage.”
Gov. Bobby Jindal said state agencies continue to monitor the spill. Steps have already been taken to protect the Pass-A-Loutre Wildlife Management Area in southern Plaquemines Parish, where booms are being placed.
“Out of an abundance of caution, I have directed all agencies to examine their roles in the response to potential damage caused by oil in the event it moves to Louisiana's coast,” Jindal said Tuesday.
The slick's last reported size was nearly 1,900 square miles, according to joint statements issued by the Coast Guard, the U.S. Minerals Management Service and BP, the company which leased the now-sunken rig. An edge of the slick was estimated to be 21 miles off the Louisiana coast Tuesday night. Winds were coming from the northwest this week, minimizing the risk to south Louisiana's shrimp-bowl parishes of Terrebonne and Lafourche, local fishermen noted. But winds are expected to shift some time later today, and will push up from the southeast. That can place crabs, shrimp, oysters and other seafood at risk, even as far west as Terrebonne and Lafourche. It could also limit the ability of harvesters to get out on the water in a worst-case scenario.
“The onshore flow will bring the oil closer,” said NOAA spokesman John Ewald, who is among officials monitoring the spill. Forecasts as to where the oil might travel are limited to about 72 hours on a given day, Ewald said, making long-term assessments impossible.
Charter boat captain Stu Scheer of Cocodrie shares Blanchard's concern.
“Some of that could come over this way,” Scheer said. “We are not out of the woods, all fishermen, all user groups.”
Local scientists engaged in habitat restoration and protection of the coastal environment are likewise watching the developments intensely.
Michael Massimi, invasive species coordinator at the Barataria-Terrebonne Natural Estuary Program at Nicholls State University, said plants in the estuary system can survive oil spills, if they have not thoroughly been covered.
Key to the amount of damage will be how far the oil has had to travel to reach shore.
“Once it hits the surface there is a possibility of a lot of the volatile gasses getting out of the oil,” he said. “But that doesn't underplay the potential for ecological crisis.”
Birds – particularly those nesting on the Chandeleur Islands – are especially at risk, Massimi said, as are mammals like nutria, raccoons and otters.
Knowing there is dirty sludge in their fur or feathers, he said, the creatures try to groom themselves. But in so doing the toxins in the oil can be ingested, with potentially fatal results.
Finfish, Massimi said, are at less risk because they can avoid a surface spill. Shrimp have less mobility and are more affected by the whims of the tide, and crabs have difficulty avoiding trouble as well, he said. Oysters don't go anywhere, and can be wiped out by sludge.
Scientists interviewed Tuesday said it is possible to move oysters to safer waters, but that with the unpredictability of a slick this large – fed daily by more oil – that can be a problematic. Oysters moved from what appears to be an area of risk could end up in danger if the slick changes course.
Despite the risk to their livelihoods, fishermen did not express animus toward the oil industry itself.
“They are using, I am sure, all the expertise they have to get at it to get it under control,” Scheer said. “I'm sure they want that just as badly as we do.”