Cover Story
Chuck Cook / Genesis Photos

What lies beneath

A month into the BP oil spill, residents await hard-to-see and difficult-to-predict ramifications from the latest Gulf Coast disaster

Issue: "Gulf toil," June 5, 2010

VENICE, La. & BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss.- From the port side of an immaculate, 36-foot Yellowfin boat off the coast of southern Louisiana, charter boat captain Trey Pique is fishing for oil. The Louisiana native baits his hook with a purple lure and a long strip of white plastic. A moment later, he casts the line into a wide streak of brownish water near the side of the boat. The goal: Find out if the brown streak is oil.

More than three weeks after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded 50 miles south of Louisiana, killing 11 people before sinking 5,000 feet to the ocean floor and gushing at least 5,000 barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico each day, Pique's routine has changed. The charter boat captain, based in Venice, La., on the southernmost tip of the state, normally ferries recreational fishing groups to catch huge specimens of tuna, red snapper, and mahi-mahi. Today he's taking two staffers from the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) to search these waters for oil specimens.

A few minutes after casting, Pique reels in his line and inspects the white strip of plastic. It's clean, and that's a good sign: It probably means the brown streak isn't oil. But Pique wonders where the substance might be lurking. So do his customers: Pique is ferrying NWF workers because most of his fishing clients canceled their trips this week, worried about what's below the water's surface. Emily Guidry Schatzel from NWF shares their fears: "We're worried about a hidden disaster."

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The worry is widespread: Though a mixture of heavy winds, ocean currents, and chemical dispersants kept oil from soaking Gulf Coast shores in the first weeks after the April 20 explosion, some scientists and coastal residents worry that the unseen oil may be wreaking untold havoc below the surface. Others warned that a "loop current" could carry plumes of oil to the Florida Keys and up the East Coast.

BP officials downplayed the implications: After the company that once leased the sunken rig finally managed to siphon some oil from the gushing pipe-nearly a month after the explosion-BP CEO Tony Hayward predicted a "very, very modest" environmental impact from the spill.

Others aren't so sure: On the same day Hayward predicted a modest impact, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal reported that he saw "heavy oil" in some of the state's wetlands and marshlands during a flyover. He predicted more oil on Louisiana shores. And aerial photographs showed a rusty sheen the size of Delaware.

Fishermen, seafood workers, and residents along the Gulf Coast worry about what's invisible: millions of gallons of oil that could cause catastrophic damage to a fishing industry that provides one-fourth of all U.S. seafood. That industry is at the top of the economic food chain on the Gulf Coast, and it sustains much of the region still recovering from Hurricane Katrina.

With broad swaths of fishing waters closed after the oil spill, the industry already is suffering. And with hurricane season starting June 1, many in the region-especially in small coastal towns-wonder if they can endure another disaster, natural or man-made.

In the small coastal town of Venice, what's not happening is striking. A handmade sign above an empty fish-cleaning station at Venice Marina declares: "Fishing Capitol of the World." But the nearly deserted marina betrays a new reality. Rows of boats normally gone on fishing trips on sunny mornings like this one in May are idle in slips. Commercial shrimp boats sit empty, bearing painted names like Capt Sang and Lucky Day.

Pique, a charter boat captain working in the marina, says this is usually one of the busiest times of the year for recreational fishing. Pique says he was on track for at least 40 more charter trips than last year. But the spill has gutted business: Clients are canceling, and new reservations are nonexistent.

That's frustrating for Pique, who says plenty of areas are still open for recreational fishing. But with officials opening and closing new areas nearly every day, customers don't want to risk losing money on an expensive trip. Pique understands, but it makes him nervous: "This is how I pay my bills and provide for my family."

For now, Pique hopes to work for BP helping with clean-up. The company is hiring local fishermen and boat captains to help transport emergency workers, carry boom designed to protect shores from oil, and skim oil from the surface of the water. Many are already working: Shrimp boats coming back from the disaster site bear long strands of yellow and red boom soaked in oil.

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