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Gulf fishermen are 'living hell'

  • Author: Craig Medred
  • Updated: July 7, 2016
  • Published May 4, 2010

BAYOU CADDY, MISS. -- The rain was pounding the Gulf coast beneath a sky dark as the slick of black crude floating miles to sea when Mike Thornhill offered an invite aboard the shrimp trawler Risky Business. It was past 8 p.m., and Thornhill was well into the half gallon of Jim Beam bourbon on the pilot house dash.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I'm depressed. I started drinking at 5 p.m."

After days on the phone trying to save his economic future, Thornhill was near spent. "Our season opens in three weeks," he said. "I have no money."

Thornhill needed that upcoming shrimp season. But he knew that because of a big screw-up by Big Oil it wasn't going to happen. Without it, he needed some way to make a buck. He'd been trying to reach BP, the huge multinational oil company, on the telephone for days.

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BP is responsible for the spill out there over the horizon threatening the Gulf coast, the spill responsible for shutting down a bunch of fisheries already. For a company newly trying to spin itself green into solar, wind and hydrogen power, the spill is a public relations nightmare. Recognizing it as such, BP sprang into action early with promises of spill cleanup and help to all those impacted by its oil.

Thornhill had a number to dial for BP help. He wasn't having much luck reaching it. "It's been busy for days," he said.

BP is the world's second or third largest privately-owned oil company, depending on who is quantifying. Exxon Mobil is first or second. Twenty-one years ago, Exxon smeared Alaska's Prince William Sound with 11 million gallons of North Slope crude oil. It, too, offered to clean up and make whole those who believed themselves victims of its oil.

Thornhill didn't know a lot about the mess -- physical, economic and social -- that followed the wreck of the tanker Exxon Valdez, but he knew enough. He knew Exxon left fishermen unhappy about its help. He knew, too, the Exxon spill shut down fishing not only near the leaking wreck, but in a broad swath of Alaska to the north.

The same thing was happening all over again off Louisiana. An uncapped oil well beneath the sunken drill rig Deepwater Explorer was gushing oil 50 miles out to sea. The oil shot up from a mile deep in the ocean and began to drift north.

Eventually, it formed a slick the size of Jamaica. As that slick moved toward land, fishing in a 6,800-square-mile area east of the Mississippi River was closed. Thornhill knew the shrimp fisheries in the same area were not going to open. He feared they would be closed for a long time, a long, long time.

"I'm about to lose my mind here," he said. "I'm drinking it away tonight. I'm sitting here exhausted. I've been on the phone for days and days. We are living hell."

Outside the cabin of the Risky Business, the air was hot and heavy, but Thornhill had the air conditioner cranked up inside. It was cool, almost cold. He could have been sitting in the cabin of a Prince William Sound seiner in Cordova 21 years earlier.

He lit a Marlboro and took a long pull. He added some Coke to the whiskey and ice in his glass. A shy beagle crossbreed dog with blue eyes huddled at his feet.

"I remember watching those people washing oil off the rocks in Alaska," the 50-year-old skipper said. The video stuck in his mind. He had visions of visions of a similar thick black goo getting up into the wire grass -- what the locals call paraffin grass -- on the Mississippi River delta.

"It kills it," he said, but that's just the beginning. The paraffin grass is what anchors the land in place. Once it is gone, big chunks of once-fertile Mississippi and Louisiana wetlands wash away with every Gulf storm. The wetlands have been under attack for years from pollution washing down the Mississippi. As they've suffered, Thornhill has watched shorelines and islands he's known since childhood disappear.

Then came the April 20 explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon that killed 11 and triggered the latest environmental crisis. The Horizon disaster left that open hole in the sea bed below pumping oil out at the rate of 50,000 to 200,000 gallons or more per day. Two weeks after the accident, it continued to gush. It was still gushing as this was written, though BP -- with help from other oil companies and the U.S. government -- continued to try to stifle the flow.

For BP, the wellhead blowout is both a logistical and public relations problem. The company is said to be spending more than $6 million per day trying to solve both.

For Thornhill, the spill is a possible end to a way of life. He has been a shrimper since his 20s. Once, he said, he walked away to the north, following a woman. He took a job as a welder for Caterpillar Inc., the world's leading manufacturer of heavy equipment for construction and mining. It was the mid-1990s, and Caterpillar was locked in a bitter battle with union employees. Thornhill didn't know what kind of welding job he was getting into.

"I didn't even know what a scab was," he said. He quickly found out. His eyes were opened when his new employers put him up in a hotel far from the jobsite, then bused him and his new co-workers through screaming strikers to get to work. Thornhill didn't last long before quitting the job and moving back to the bayous and the shrimp.

"I've commercial fished for 18 years," Thornhill said. He's tried a couple of other times to get away. Shrimping is hard, unpredictable work. Thornhill last gave it up to start a tree service business early in this decade. He thought he finally had it made. He was making good money, and he'd been able to invest in $350,000 in equipment for cutting and moving trees. When he heard a big storm was coming, he started thinking about how he might clean up afterward.

"I had all my equipment fueled up and ready to go to make a fortune the next day," Thornhill said.

The big storm turned out to be Hurricane Katrina. It leveled almost everything hereabout. To imagine the destruction, you need to see this coast now, five years later. The wrecks of the homes knocked flat by winds and waves remain everywhere. The new construction is all on pilings 20 feet off the ground to protect against flooding.

Thornhill knows about the flooding. His fully fueled equipment went underwater and was destroyed.

"My equipment, the house, everything was lost," he said. Saltwater corrosion ruined the machinery. Silt a foot and a half deep filled the house. Thornhill was offered $120,000 for what was left of his business. He took the money and put it into the shrimp boat that is now both job and home. It was tied up this week along with others at a seawall behind the Silver Slipper Casino at the end of a gravel road west of Biloxi.

The road had been ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, too. With the Gulf tides high and a storm surge pushing ashore, parts of it were underwater Sunday, but the casino was lit up, its neon lights shouting out a welcome in the storm.

Thornhill didn't expect that to last. Even the casino was in trouble, he said. The economy in the whole area has been headed for the toilet. Investors up-bayou were letting land go back to the banks, Thornhill said. With the closure of the shrimp fisheries, the situation would only get worse.

"This is a cesspool," Thornhill said. "It's one catastrophic hell after another. I'm truly at a loss. I try to laugh it off, but it ain't good."

I left Thornhill aboard the Risky Business in the night. Afraid his strange visitor from Alaska might slip on the deck, he led me out through the cluttered main cabin, apologizing for the sink full of dirty dishes. The hot Mississippi air slapped me in the face at the aft door. I stepped out into a hot, wet reminder that the Horizon spill is a new story in a new place -- but it is an old story as well.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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