How An Oil Spill Destroyed A Culture

Fishing and shrimping is the foundation of Cajun society. If you’ve ever been to the Louisiana delta area, you’ll know the humidity gets into everything. Your skin, your bones, your organs. It’s not farmland. It’s wetland.

And that’s the lifeblood of the area’s food culture, which has a profound influence on the region’s way of life. Creole recipes are among America’s greatest culinary contributions—gumbos, jambalayas, etoufees—and as cultural centers go, the NOLA area eclipses most of the country in its contributions.

That’s all about to change. In fact, it’s changing right now.

New Orleans restaurants are already changing their menus to offer less seafood, as tourists don’t trust it. Some of the largest shrimp docks are closing their doors, perhaps for good. Demand has plummeted for shrimp, oysters and crawfish within the area for fear of contamination—a dirty word among fishermen in the delta. Even for areas of Louisiana that aren’t affected as yet, suspicion of the quality of the fish is high.

Not even the satellite maps are accurate as to the spread of the oil that threatens the nation’s largest concentration of wetlands. The dispersants used by the oil giant BP to break down the oil has served to make the oil heavier and sink it, so tactics normally used to fight or contain oil spills above the water are proving fruitless.

The well-worn point of comparison—the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989—has some disturbing news for the Louisiana area. Over half of the 20 major species of animal affected by the spill have not yet recovered to their pre-spill numbers, including otters and killer whales. There are still parts of the beach near where the Valdez ran aground where you put a shovel in the ground, turn over some sand, and find a pool of oil.

Stocks of commercial herring outside of the fishing town of Cordova, Alaska, have never recovered since 1991, two years after the spill, with scientists still unsure as to why. Oil contamination still affects the food cycle. A spate of suicides followed the spill, including one former mayor.

Now, with current estimates of oil draining into the Gulf Of Mexico anywhere from three to five times the rate of the original estimates, the situation for the fishing culture seem more grim by the day. Though the total amount of oil spilled isn’t leaving the source at once like the Valdez spill, it’s affecting a much larger area of ocean and will be present in the environment for decades to come.

Imagine how that might affect some shrimpers, for their utility to disappear for a decade or more. Generations of shrimpers and fishermen may have their culture and methods permanently disrupted, unable to teach the next generation the tried-and-true methods, best areas, etc. Obviously, these skills won’t disappear from the earth, but there’s a certain wisdom learned through generations of area inhabitants that may be forever lost.

And while everyone’s pointing fingers—if you’re a Democrat, at the oil companies, and if you’re a Republican, at the president—everyone admits that the government doesn’t have the technology or the ability to do anything. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar admitted that the oil companies are the only ones with the technology to handle the spill.

But only recently did BP decide to abandon the prospect of further drilling at the well site in order to stem the leak by filling it with concrete following the ‘top kill’ procedure. They gambled with the region’s ecosystem and economy, and lost. But the people lost more. Only now, reports are surfacing of heated arguments onboard the rig less than 12 hours before the rig exploded, with BP and its partners admitting over seven individual failures, procedural and otherwise, which have been identified. Safety tests were skipped.

It is unlikely, however, that much of the truth about this will ever surface. Workers on the rig were coerced into signing waivers right after the explosion. A top BP official, Robert Kaluza, plead the fifth at a recent hearing. One of the men involved in that argument, Donald Vidrine, has dropped out from testimonies citing a medical condition.

The social depression and structural damage that Hurricane Katrina created was only the prelude to the destruction of one of America’s proudest cities and cultural regions. It will take a miracle, and many, many years, for it to ever recover.