Page last updated at 11:44 GMT, Saturday, 4 December 2010

Louisiana oyster beds remain empty after BP disaster

Oyster boat in Louisiana
It took Louisiana's oyster industry years to recover from Hurricane Katrina

By Paul Adams
BBC News, Louisiana

Louisiana's oyster beds have not recovered from the US's worst environmental catastrophe, the Deepwater Horizon oil-rig disaster, and some fishermen fear they never will.

We were fishing at the end of the world- or at least a place that felt like it.

Grand Isle is one of the final precarious fragments of land where the myriad bayous of the Mississippi delta give way to the open water of the Gulf of Mexico.

Around us, hungry frigate birds watched as we headed for the oyster beds.

For the first time in my life, I had oysters for breakfast

Pelicans swooped by in formation, low and effortless, and a pair of dolphins raced just ahead of the bow, daring each other to get closer and occasionally rolling sideways to check we were suitably impressed.

We were less than 100 miles (160 km) from the wreck of the Deepwater Horizon but everything looked pristine under a blazing sun.

And the oysters! As big as the palm of my hand, succulent and briny.

It was still early and so, for the first time in my life, I had oysters for breakfast. But the atmosphere aboard the boat was sombre.

The oysters were good but hardly plentiful. At this, the season of peak demand, far too many were simply dead.

Sorting oysters on a fishing boat
Oyster supplies are down following measures taken to disperse the oil

Not, as you might think, coated in sticky oil or even poisoned by chemical dispersants but killed off, as luck would have it, by fresh water.

Millions of gallons from the Mississippi River were hurriedly diverted into the bays and marshes of the delta to keep the oil from rolling in, earlier in the year - but this upset the delicate balance of fresh and salty conditions the oysters need to survive.

Nick Collins is a fourth generation oyster-man, with a rich gumbo of an accent to match.

His business had only just recovered from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, five years ago, and Nick was looking forward to a bumper year.

But if the first setback was an act of God, the second was an act of industry - an industry that is much bigger and more commercially important to Louisiana than Nick's delicious oysters, an industry that sits off this fragile, mysterious landscape of channels and marshes, and produces the stuff that Americans really cannot get enough off.

Microbe army

At nearby Port Fouchon beach, the shallow-water rigs, tens of them, sit as little as a mile offshore.

Cleaning up the beach
Clean-up teams are still scooping up tar from the beach

Oil arrived here in the weeks after the spill and BP's clean-up continues.

Armies of contract workers, mostly from Central America, make their steady, painstaking way along the sand.

Wave after wave of them, in bright yellow boots, stooping slightly over shovels and brushes, scooping up tiny tar balls, covered in sand.

They pause, scour the patch in front of them and then - to the sound of "Vamonos!" ("Let's go!") - move on a few paces.

Not all the oil is from the Macondo well. Studies show that some of it comes from elsewhere, perhaps from the rigs we can see, perhaps even from the natural seepage that goes on all the time in the oil-rich Gulf of Mexico - and which has, over the eons, created an army of microbes that like nothing more than to feast, like Pac-Men, on energy-rich hydrocarbons.

He was confident, as everyone was, that it was just a matter of time before the oysters reappeared and everyone was happy again

Organisms that just might clean up whatever muck lurks out of sight, all by themselves.

So the clean-up is not just about the Deepwater Horizon but about every company that has ever sought to make a fortune extracting the black stuff and bringing it ashore.

BP, it seems, is making amends for all of us.

Fading hopes

But back to the oysters and another family business struggling with the fallout.

On the edge of New Orleans' legendary French quarter, the P & J Oyster Company has been in business for more than 130 years.

Like Nick Collins, Al Sunseri wonders if he has what it takes to recover.

The ice which gushes noisily into his giant coolers every eight minutes has very little to cool and the high, whitewashed-stone shucking tables are deserted.

Exxon Valdez tanker being towed
The Exxon Valdez ran aground off Alaska spilling 11m gallons of oil

He has laid off all but two temporary workers who keep a trickle of customers happy with oysters from nearby Texas.

Al also had to deal with Katrina, downsizing and waiting for the oyster beds to replenish themselves.

He was confident, as everyone was, that it was just a matter of time before the oysters reappeared and everyone was happy again.

But now he wonders about his son, who has experienced depression and has not been working for a couple of months.

He says he remembers his own anxiety as a young man, taking over a business with such a long tradition to uphold.

He thinks about Alaska and the herrings that disappeared from Prince William Sound three years after the Exxon Valdez spill, never to return.

More than seven months after the blowout on the Deepwater Horizon, the full ramifications of this disaster are still hard to gauge.

The uncertainty gnaws at everyone who depends on the sea. Is it possible, they wonder, that the worst days may still lie ahead?

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