Louisiana seafood, hold the oil
So I didn't make the guest list last night at the State Dinner, but I will put my meal up against whatever the grub was at the White House. Went to Coop's Place in the French Quarter, sat at the bar, had the taste plate. They start you with a cup of gumbo with a very dark roux (I forgot how much they love the butter down here) and a couple of crab claws poking out to the top. Big fat oyster as star of that show. Then came the main plate, and it ain't a pretty thing at all, because, frankly, you have to have it all explained by the bartender. There's shrimp remoulade, red beans & rice, and rabbit and sausage jambalaya, all topped by a fried chicken wing. I got so much momentum on that plate I had order a whole extra serving of marinated crab claws. Man. That's eatin'.
I know this is fascinating stuff for you all so let me tell you about what I had the night before: The Thibodeaux, at a restaurant called Lil' G's, in Belle Chasse. The Thibodeaux is two crab cakes slathered in creole cream sauce and sprinkled with crawfish. Side order of a garlic baked potato. Gosh I just can't stop thinking about it.
True, I'm writing this from the cardiac unit of the local hospital, but, come on, you gotta take one for the team in these situations. (Actually I'm sitting poolside at the motel; I could get used to this.)
I love the seafood from the gulf and regularly plunk down $11.99 a pound for brown gulf shrimp from my local fishmonger (one of the locals here told me that no one eats the brown shrimp here because it's too iodine-ish; they eat the white shrimp). You should see the shrimp coming off the trawlers, the incredible bounty. One of the guys I interviewed for my story today loaded two tubs with 600 pounds each of shrimp. They're too small, mind you. Season opened too early, because of the oil spill. They'll go to the processor and he'll probably get a dollar a pound.
Yesterday I saw a guy unload 21 sacks of oysters, each with 100 pounds inside. He had to use a front-end loader to get the sacks onto the back of a truck.
Nature is generous here. But for how long?
How many insults can this place take?
This BP oil spill is going to ruin a lot of great fishing grounds -- for years, is what it looks like. It's coming ashore for sure, and it's nasty stuff, I handled a bit of it yesterday -- chocolate syrup but stickier.
The reputation hit for Louisiana seafood -- and gulf seafood -- has already happened. (Though I saw a makeshift sign posted at the door of the landmark restaurant Brennan's: "We proudly serve Louisiana seafood.")
Who wants to eat oily shrimp? Never mind that they've closed a giant swath of the gulf to fishing and part of the inshore marshlands to oystering. No one wants to eat seafood that's come anywhere near an oil spill.
Well, I might still eat that stuff with enough hot sauce. Though if you douse it with that habanero sauce it might actually catch fire.
I don't like it when my oysters erupt in flames.
Sylvia Earle, the oceanographer, testified yesterday before Oberstar's Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and talked about the deep ocean environment that I wrote about Sunday.
Many questions have been raised and I'll raise them again about the use of the dispersants that really are more cosmetic than helpful in terms of solving the real problems. If I could speak for the oceans, I would say halt the use of subsurface dispersants and limit surface use to strategic sites where other methods cannot safeguard critically important coastal habitats.
The headlines lament oiled birds, oiled beaches and marshes, oiled turtles, dolphins and whales as they should, but where's the constituency concerned about oiled cocapods, poisoned cocoliphaforids, proquoacas -- some of those creatures that are heavy lifters with respect to generating oxygen and driving food webs in the ocean.
The diatoms, the jellies, the pteropods, the squid, the larval urchins, the eggs and the young of this year's vital offspring of tuna, shrimp, and menhaden. Not only is the unruly flow of millions of gallons of oil an issue, but also the thousands of gallons of toxic dispersants that may make the ocean look a little better on the surface where most of the people are, but makes circumstances a lot worse under the surface where most of the life in the ocean actually is.
We've already, this year, seen the loss of two underwater systems that are not being supported any longer by the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution -- the Johnson Sea-Links that for years have provided access down to 1,000 meters, 3,000 feet or so, since the 1970s; the Alvin submersible, the workhorse of the submersibles for scientific exploration since 1964, is about to be retired. It will be retired before its replacement is ready to go.
Meanwhile, Japan, Russia, China and France have systems, manned systems, that can go and make observations to at least half the ocean's depth. And no nation has a system that can go back to full ocean depth.
A visit there took place only once, in 1960, 50 years ago, for about half an hour in the Mariana Trench.
How many systems can go to 5,000 feet with human observers? Right now, it's a handful. And only the Alvin in this country really qualifies. The Pisces subs have been in that league.
But we are woefully unprepared to send anybody down to just take a look, to be able to evaluate with more than just a camera system -- as good as they are.
And where are the facilities that you can pull off the shelf for the Coast Guard to go down, for example, to evaluate on their own, not necessarily relying on industry-provided systems.
What's amazing to me is that the gulf is as resilient as it has been in the face of thousands of wells that have been drilled and that operations, the shipping on the surface, the heavy large- scale fishing operations that have taken place, there's still plenty of reason for hope. The ocean is still resilient.
And the Gulf of Mexico is almost a laboratory of resilience to show how some of these sophisticated operations can take place side by side with a productive kind of ocean system, not what it was a thousand years ago or even a hundred years ago, but still a viable, productive system.
But there are limits to what we can get away with and still have fish prospering, still have the spawning area for the western Atlantic in the western Gulf of Mexico. There are such things as going too far.
Wilbert Collins, still harvesting oysters at 72, said there have been plenty of smaller spills that no one made a fuss over. He said he knows very well what it's like to eat an oyster that's been hit with an oil spill.
"You just taste the oil. It stays in there a couple of weeks," he said at the emergency claim center. The word from inside was that BP would give $2,500 per fisherman as an advance on any future claim. Just show some paperwork, some trip tickets, something to establish one's credentials as a fisherman.
What no one can provide, though, is any peace of mind right now. The oil this week has started to hit the grass in the outer marshlands. Meanwhile, there is the great unknown of the chemical dispersants that have been used to break up the oil.
"The medicine they're spraying on there, we don't know how bad it is," Collins said.
Shrimper Thomas Barrios chimed in: "Is our kids going to get cancer and all that? Is it going to make people sick?"
Martin Folse, owner of an independent TV station called HTV, in Houma, has toured the spill by helicopter and shown long stretches of unedited footage revealing the oil already touching some of the islands west of the Mississippi. As grave as the situation is, though, he casts no blame.
"I can't sit here and criticize oil because I live in an area that oil has built. But seafood has built it, too. It's two very powerful industries that has been affected at one time," Folse said. "It's like watching two brothers fight. You can't pick a side. You gotta work with both sides."
At an outdoor bait stand on the road along the bayou, Randy Borne Jr., 30, had been looking forward to making a little money in his second year in business. But the charter boat captains have had so many cancellations because the authorities have closed the federal waters to fishing. That means the captains aren't buying his bait. Life is tough at the bottom of the monetary food chain.
He was getting ready to go to the new claim center, but ran into a snag: No paperwork.
"The W-2 form, I sent it off for my food stamps," his wife, Casey, 22, told him.
"You sent off a copy," he said, hoping.
"No," she said.
Tension flared. Some panic. He stomped off.
She said to a reporter, "I'm scared that it will come."
The oil, she meant.
"Right now we're not making much as it is."
She and Randy retreated inside their home. Outside, deckhand Clerville Kief III, whose grandfather had founded the hardware store in Galliano, smoked a cigarette and pondered the calamity.
"You're never going to stop human error," he said. "We don't got nothing against the oil industry around here. We need petroleum products in order for us to operate."
Randy Borne eventually figured out a plan -- to show the BP people the trip tickets, the documentation of every time he's been out in the marsh catching shrimp.
The Bornes and Kief then climbed into a battered red pickup to race up the road to the claim center. Just before pulling away, Randy Borne jumped out of the truck and returned to shake the reporter's hand.
"Four or five nights I've had no sleep," he said, and apologized as if he had seemed rude.
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