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An ocean of frustration

5/20/2010

COCODRIE, La. — Fishing charter captains are a hearty lot. On a regular basis they endure cancellations, unrealistic clients, unpredictable fishing, and in the case of Gulf of Mexico charters, increasingly common man-made and natural disasters.

The ability to stay calm in the face of adversity is universal among fishing charter captains all over North America, but none deserve a medal for controlling their anger more than the fishermen along the Louisiana coast.

Both Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the current BP Deepwater Horizon oil leak changed the way they fish and the perception of their fishery by the world, but both then and now they continue to find a way to persevere.

What frustrates them more than the disasters is when misinformation, or worse, inaction, are the reasons they lose business.

Inaction and misinformation dealt by people are perhaps the only similarities between the effects of Hurricane Katrina and the current oil leak, according to Louisiana fishermen.

"After Hurricane Katrina, it took a while to convince the world it was OK to come to the gulf and fish again," said Tommy Pellegrin, owner of Custom Charters in Cocodrie, La.

Cocodrie is 80 miles south of New Orleans and is the unofficial access point to many of the gulf's oilrigs, including the one that is currently lying on the ocean floor in 5,000 feet of water with oil spewing nearby.

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Immediately following Katrina the media was saturated with footage of its devastation both on and offshore, but failed to mention the fishing was better than ever.

"Unlike oil spills, hurricanes are like fertilizer to fishing. They stir things up and feed nutrient to places that were previously not very rich in fish," he said.

Sport fishing along the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts actually benefitted from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

"Once we convinced everyone that the ocean was OK and the fishing was better than ever, charters got back on track in no time," Pellegrin said.

And while the current oil leak will have a much different effect on the gulf and fishing there, it's dredging up some of the same frustrations as Katrina.

"I fished yesterday and caught fish every place we dropped a line," he said. "I had to cross some of the areas closed to fishing due to the oil spill to get to my destination, but not all of the fishing in the area is closed — yet."

The biggest problem Pellegrin faces now is not that the fish are all dead or gone, but rather that potential fishermen think they are and have stopped calling.

He's still fishing and catching fish, but because of the media coverage, everyone thinks the entire Louisiana coast is entirely off limits.

Pellegrin has unfortunately dealt with this problem before and hopes it resolves itself the way it did after Katrina.

"After Katrina, fishermen eventually started calling us instead of listening to the news to see if the fishing was OK. That needs to happen again," he said.

Pellegrin explained that any fishing charter interested in rebooking trips will tell the truth about closures and conditions, saying their long-term livelihood depended on it.

Monumental mishandling

Misinformation is only one of the problems current Louisiana fishermen are dealing with, however.

From the beginning, BP's handling of the oil leak has been even more frustrating for Pellegrin. As the disaster unfolds, documents and government officials are substantiating what he already knew.

A recent USA Today article exposed an emergency response plan prepared by BP that showed the British energy giant never anticipated an oil spill as large as the one seeping through the Gulf of Mexico.

The 582-page document, titled "Regional Oil Spill Response Plan - Gulf of Mexico," was approved in July by the federal Mineral Management Service (MMS). It offers technical details on how to use chemical dispersants and provides instructions on what to say to the news media, but it does not mention how to react if a deep-water well spews oil uncontrollably, according to the USA article.

Several lawmakers also criticized BP last week for their handling of the leak.

Pellegrin and other area fishermen believe BP spent too much time trying to save the leaking pipe in the beginning versus trying to simply seal it.

"Why didn't they (BP) shoot concrete into that pipe the first time they discovered it was leaking? It's what they do for other leaking pipes," he insisted.

He lost the last bit of trust he had in BP when they called a meeting of area fishermen and offered to put them to work containing the leak.

"It sounded like a great gesture on paper, but after attending the meeting BP set up to tell us about the plan, I smelled a rat," Pellegrin said. "They handed all of us a several-page contract that was too complicated for most to understand.

"By the third page, I tore it up because it essentially was asking me to spend a lot of my own money to be in compliance with their rules on the off chance they would hire me when they needed me. There were no guarantees of work."

Many of the fishermen who signed the contract had no idea what they were signing, he said.

As of May 18, Pellegrin was still fishing every day and doing quite well outside the closed areas, though new closures are announced every day. His main concerns now are not that he can fish tomorrow, but that the leak is contained soon and the gulf has time to rebound before the next big disaster.

Contact Capt. Tommy Pellegrin for updated gulf and fishing conditions at www.customchartersllc.com.