The BP Oil Spill and the Bounty of Plaquemines Parish | Randy Fertel

from Gastronomica 11:1

People…know that the cornucopia is emptying.
—Christopher Hallowell, Holding Back the Sea 1

The city of New Orleans has been reclaimed. Many here feel that New Orleans is back. It may be different, perhaps in some regards even better. 2 Disaster and rebirth is an old story in this part of the country. I know. My family has lived that cycle for generations deep in the Mississippi Delta—in Plaquemines Parish, a name that since the British Petroleum (BP) oil spill has become a cultural marker, the equal, after Katrina, of “the Lower Ninth Ward.” But the oil spill? Will it prove one too many disasters for the return of the Plaquemines Parish my family once knew? Or will it, like Hurricane Katrina, be a dangerous opportunity for changes long overdue?

As much of America suddenly knows, the mouth of the Mississippi River and the surrounding marshlands of Plaquemines Parish nurture the foodstuffs that grace the tables of New Orleans’s world-famous restaurants and provide much of the seafood—25 to 30 percent of it—that Americans eat. Over two centuries the region’s diverse, amphibious Delta culture—Alsatian, Croatian, Isleño, African American, Italian, and Native American—also nurtured my family’s culinary roots that flowered into the Ruth’s Chris Steak House restaurant empire. My mother, Ruth Udstad Fertel, grew up in the tiny downriver community of Happy Jack. She founded her restaurant in 1965 when she bought a little steakhouse in New Orleans with seventeen tables from Chris Matulich, who also had roots in Plaquemines.

There roots can grow deep. The lush soil of the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta hundreds of miles to the north, where the blues were born, measures tens of feet thick.3 But here, the true Delta is nothing but topsoil, the result of eons of silt left by the river in its annual inundation. Reporting on Katrina, the New York Times noted that the mud in east New Orleans, where the deltaic formation begins, is two hundred feet thick.4 It grows still thicker as you move south toward the continental shelf.

Besides the rich alluvial soil, “high ground” has always been key currency in the lower Delta. High ground means the levee and the few acres of prairie (from French pré, meadow) that run back to the marsh and beyond it to pirate Jean Lafitte’s Barataria Bay, and then to the Gulf. The prairie was the more or less marshy land east and west of the thin strips of habitable land on either side of the river and below the river levees back toward the swamp, where the “back levee” held the waters out—most of the time. Early settlers were given one arpent—192 feet—along the river and forty arpents that ran back from their river frontage: almost a mile and a half. All is flat, except here and there you find chénières where small oaks chéniers) have taken hold and built up a bit more soil around them, maybe five all-important feet of elevation. And here and there, you might find shell middens that rise a few feet, where Native Americans in prehistory gathered to feed off clam and oysters reefs and left the shells behind. But mainly we are talking flat as far as the eye can see, from the river to the marsh, all the way to the Gulf.

Except for the levees. Built up by eons of annual spring inundation and then bolstered by a century or more of human effort, the levees were what made the lower Delta habitable and its rich black soil arable. Land grants stipulated that the settlers would build levees on their arpent of riverfront. Their skill in doing so improved when the Cajuns came in the 1760s, bringing expertise with them from Nova Scotia where Native Americans had taught them to build weirs to trap fish and reclaim farmland from the sea. In the Delta levees were used to keep the sea, or river, out, which they did, more or less. But after the great flood of 1927 the Army Corps of Engineers was charged with never allowing another such disaster again. Beginning in 1928 the Corps increased the height of the levees throughout the lower Mississippi River Valley.

Boats on Buras, Louisiana, levee after Katrina, October 2005. Courtesy of Randy Fertel.

Paradoxically, these levees that made life possible in the Delta wetlands also caused the wetlands’ eventual melting away into the Gulf. Without the annual freshwater inundation and the silt it left behind, the land was subjected to erosion— allowing the salt-water intrusion that killed off the plant life and caused more erosion. Sulfur, natural gas, and oil production companies dug twenty thousand miles of canals by seeking more direct routes to their fields and to pump out their mineral wealth. Canals brought tidal and wave action deep into the wetlands, leading to more than a third of the loss the wetlands have suffered.5

We were oblivious to the world we were losing. “The Cut”—the nearest reach of one of those canals—was an exciting place. Behind the company barracks Freeport Sulphur Company dug, as a fishing and swimming hole, an extra spur in the ten-mile canal used to get men to the sulfur dome at Lake Grande Ecaille and to get the sulfur back to the river for transport. Connected to Grand Bayou and beyond it the Gulf, the Cut was the closest place from Uncle Sig’s and Aunt Helen’s to fish for redfish and speckled trout and flounder. Once a canal, the Cut is now open water that stretches out toward the Gulf.

A creolized corruption of the Native American piakimin, Plaquemines was named for the persimmons that grew wild on the riverbanks. In 1727, less than a decade after New Orleans’s settlement, Sister Marie Madeleine Hachard, an Ursuline nun traveling to the Crescent City to found the oldest all-girls school in America, described these and other fruits of this cornucopian land:

Wild ducks are very cheap. Teal, water-hen, geese and other fowl and game are also very common but we do not buy it as we do not wish to indulge in delicacies. Really, it is a charming country all winter and in summer the fish are plentiful and good. There are oysters and carps of prodigious size and delicious flavor…We also eat watermelons and French melons and sweet potatoes which are large roots that are cooked in the coals like chestnuts…The peaches and figs are very excellent and abundant. We are sent so many of them from the nearby plantations that we make them into preserves and jelly. Blackberry jelly is particularly good. Reverend Father de Beaubois has the finest garden in the city. It is full of orange trees…He gave us about three hundred sour ones which we preserved.

My maternal ancestors arrived in the New World at about the same time as Sister Marie. Carpenter Simon Hingle (sometimes Engel or Yngle in the genealogical record) probably settled first in Mobile, then traveled to La Côte des Allemands, a dozen miles below Baton Rouge on the river. The name means German Bank (literally coast) of the Mississippi. John Law brought Alsatian immigrants from the Rhine-Palatinate in 1718 to settle there as part of the Mississippi Company monopoly he was granted by the French government. Law promised a mountain of gold and paradise and delivered a hardscrabble existence to the hundreds of Alsatians who fell for the lure. Law’s Mississippi bubble soon burst. Some of his Alsatians or their descendants migrated one hundred miles south where the land with its surrounding waters, as far as fecundity went, wasn’t so far from le paradis Law had promised. By 1789 Jacques-Santiago Hingle was established in Plaquemines. The fecundity that Sister Marie described called him and his descendents to farm rice, indigo, and oranges. But in their hearts, they were all hunters and fishermen. 7

If the land was paradisal, the weather, as their laconic descendants might today say, not so much. The heat and moisture bought vector-borne diseases—malaria, yellow fever—unrelenting before the mid-twentieth-century efforts to control mosquitoes. My great-great-grandfather Jules Hingle died of lockjaw; his daughter Angeline, my great-grandmother, of anthrax. Life was hard in the Delta. But it was the land of plenty. In the Depression, according to my mother, “they never knew they were poor. There was always plenty food for the taking.”

Ruth Ustad Fertel takes her boys fishing at “The Cut,” ca. 1954. Courtesy of Randy Fertel

The weather was extraordinary and not just for the verdant winters. The hurricane of 1856 washed away Isle Dernière, a barrier island and rich man’s retreat in the Gulf of Mexico thirty miles due west from Happy Jack. It took 320 men, women, and children with it. The hurricane of 1893 killed twenty-five hundred in Louisiana, three hundred in Plaquemines alone. My great-uncle Nick Jacomine recalled the hurricane of September 1915 in his shakily handwritten memoir, “The Story of My Life: Things I Can Remember”:

The Mississippi River ran over its bank and drowned all our cattle which we had driven on the levee for protection. The water was so rough that the cattle were swept so far that some of them were never found. Up to five feet of water…every thing [sic] was destroyed, rice ready to be threshed and all foods and small animals. The government sent a relief boat with food and all twice a week and that’s what kept us going till the water receded.

Our family’s comfort-food traditions down in Happy Jack and Home Place laid the foundations of my mother’s worldwide Ruth’s Chris Steak House franchise. Uncle Sig—my mother’s brother—had built the first restaurant in the family in 1958, fashioning Sig’s Antique Restaurant from cypress beams and lovely red old brick scrounged from plantation foundations. He filled the restaurant with scavenged antiques: hunting, fishing, and farm gear. Outside, purple water hyacinths grew in an old sugar kettle. Just twenty miles north on Myrtle Grove Plantation the Creole engineer Norbert Rillieux, schooled in Paris, had invented the sugar processing evaporator, patented in 1843, that made sugar kettles obsolete.8

Mom and Aunt Helen (née Garma, a Croatian) had the run of the restaurant’s kitchen for our family feasts. Holiday dinners often began at Sig’s oyster bar, where I braved my first raw oyster well before my teens. I learned to mix cocktail sauce, both the familiar red and the local Croatian variant made of olive oil, lemon, horseradish, and Tabasco. We then would move to the long table in the dining room and set to a shrimp and okra gumbo. The main course might be daube (roast beef braised in “red gravy”) served over spaghettini (the Croatian choice rather than the local staple, rice); pork roast stuffed with whole garlic cloves; or pique duck or rabbit, stuffed with chopped garlic and parsley laced with cayenne. My great-uncle Martin’s beloved creamed spinach later migrated to Ruth’s Chris as a side dish that many customers craved alongside their steaks. But the family pièce de résistance was the oyster dressing once made, as my cousin Audrey recalls, “in a giant washtub with 17 sacks of oysters that had been fished by the men in the family from the bottom of the bayou and then shucked” and once cooked on a wood-burning stove and in an oven, my cousin exclaims, “with no thermostat!”9

Another family tradition was picking oranges at Uncle Martin’s in Home Place, below Port Sulphur. The orange groves of lower Plaquemines are famed for yielding the best oranges in America, with less acid and higher brix (a measure of sugar content) due to our hot days and cool nights (the late George Steinbrenner ordered an annual shipment.)10 As Sister Marie’s letters suggest, Jesuit priests planted orange trees in the early eighteenth century. The recipe for Uncle Martin’s orange wine went back at least three generations; it was fermented dry and, at 18 percent alcohol and up, packed a wallop.

As did Katrina. The hurricane made its first landfall in lower Plaquemines, bringing 140-mile-per-hour sustained winds with gusts up to 190 mph before moving on, reduced in power, to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Hardly a building was left standing below Happy Jack. Katrina swept across the east bank of the river and its levee, then across the broad Mississippi (two miles wide at that point) and across the west levee. Starting in Happy Jack and all the way to the end of the road in Venice, the back levee—meant to protect from floods coming from the west—held in six feet of water. The water sloshed around, floating homes off their foundations.11

Two months after Katrina, I stopped to take a picture of one such floater that had drifted up to Highway 23, the main artery running the long length of the parish. Just as I was driving away, a second glance revealed the wreck of Sig’s Antique Restaurant, its old-brick arches outside and its huge hand-hewn cypress beams inside collapsed.

Every half-hour before and since Katrina a football field of Delta marshland melts away into the Gulf, starved for silt by the levee system. This is equivalent every ten months to the size of Manhattan12. Overnight, twenty-five additional square miles of marsh were washed away, making what has been called the wettest place in the world now even wetter.

In Katrina’s wake, salt water caught between the front and back levees wreaked havoc on the citrus groves of Plaquemines Parish: Louisiana navels, Rio Red grapefruit, kumquats, Persian limes, pummelos, and Owari satsumas. Hurricane Betsy and periodic freezes battered the citrus groves from a high of 4,500 acres in the 1960s to one thousand acres pre-Katrina. After the storm, five hundred acres remained. Normally planting costs one thousand dollars an acre, and trees don’t bear till the third year. After the storm the cost of replanting included replacing the forty-horsepower tractors, packing sheds, and housing drowned by Katrina’s waters.13 Few have been replanted.

The muck left behind also smothered about 60 percent of the nation’s largest oyster beds, two million acres of public and private grounds yielding 250 million pounds of shucked oysters annually. According to Mike Voisin, an eighth-generation oysterman and chairman of the Louisiana Oyster Task Force, the beds were cleared, recultched, and reseeded. (Cultch is the bed of limestone or oyster shells to which oyster spawn attach.) Delta oysters mature in two years. However, the new river diversion projects—crucial to rebuilding the marsh and protecting the city—lower the salinity below the 50 percent threshold that Delta oysters, shrimp, and redfish need in order to thrive. The future of Plaquemines hangs on that dilemma. Some oystermen’s beds, farmed for generations, will need to be relocated. The silver lining may be that oystermen are now exploring cage and rack methods of off-bottom cultivation, introduced from New Zealand and Australia, which might help avoid the “muck problem” in the future.14 Another silver lining: to everyone’s surprise, the shrimp came roaring back, fed by the nutrients released by the marshland that had melted away in the storm surge.15 Shrimp boats were more problematic. According to John Besh of Restaurant August, Vietnamese shrimpers with their larger, seaworthy trawlers were the first to bounce back from the storm.

But feeding shrimp for a good harvest at the expense of twenty-five square miles of wetlands is a silver lining with a thick black thread. The future of the fisheries hinges on the wetlands which, as Christopher Hallowell points out, “serve[s] as breeding ground, nursery, food source, and buffer.”16 “Buffer” refers to the truth that for every two-and-one-half miles of wetlands the storm surge travels over, the surge is reduced by a foot. The longevity of New Orleans also hinges on the wetlands’ restoration.

The hurricane that drove my ancestors, the Hingles and the Jacomines, to the levee in 1915 also did significant damage to New Orleans. The ninth most intense storm in recorded history, the Great Storm of 1915 (hurricanes were unnamed until 1953) registered 140 miles per hour winds, a Category 4 storm (Katrina’s winds in New Orleans registered only Category 2). A few hours after the Hingles took to the levee, high winds tore the city apart. Streetcars stopped operating. Uptown in Audubon Park winds flattened Horticultural Hall, built for the 1884 Cotton Exposition. Downtown, Jackson Square was in shambles. The clock on the St. Louis Cathedral stopped at 5:50 p.m. Nearby, on the Pontalba Buildings, ironwork and chimneys were ripped away. The Presbytere’s cupola was demolished, and the Cabildo, its sister building where the French formally transferred ownership of Louisiana to the Americans in 1803, lost most of its roof slates. The dome and the upper floors of the vacant St. Louis Hotel—once a thriving slave market—received heavy damage. The steeple of the First Presbyterian Church on Lafayette Square across Canal in the American Sector was hurled through the church roof and two adjoining rooming houses. My great-grandparents Sam and Julia Fertel survived four blocks away, above their pawnshop on South Rampart Street.

Over eight inches of rain were recorded in the next twenty-one hours (Katrina dropped eight to ten inches). But in 1915—big difference—the levees held. Fourteen twelve-foot “screw pumps,” invented by New Orleans engineer Albert Baldwin Wood and installed just that year, delivered as promised, and removed over nine billion gallons of water from the city streets. Marvels of efficiency, the pumps are still in use today, ninety-five years later. They failed during Katrina only because they lost power, their generators flooded by the levee breaks.

Much damaged by wind, the city was saved because the levees held. Even though they were much lower in 1915, the levees held in large part because they were not battered by storm surge. They were not battered by storm surge because, in 1915, the wetlands were considerably larger.17

After Katrina, the Small Business Administration (SBA) offered Roko and Patsy Tvrdeic of Empire a one-hundred-thousand-dollar thirty-year loan to replace their oyster lugger, which the storm had crushed. Roko is an immigrant Croatian; Patsy’s family has been in the parish for generations. “How can we pay that back?” they wondered. So they declined and moved up-parish to Belle Chasse, a New Orleans dormitory suburb untouched by the flood. Communities up and down the river are dying of such not-so-little cuts. Five years after Katrina, Plaquemines’ population has dipped one quarter.18 Suburban Belle Chasse is now home to nearly half of the parish residents. Below Belle Chasse the highway seems lined—when it is lined at all—almost exclusively with house trailers.

Out in the bayou, it is a challenge to find any evidence of the spill except for the shrimp trawlers and oyster luggers hauling orange oil-containment booms on their broad decks rather than shrimp and oysters. BP pays between fifteen hundred and three thousand dollars a day per boat, depending on size.19 The banks that hold the notes on the trawlers and luggers must be paid. Because of shrimp farmed in Indonesia, Vietnam, and China—in a word, because of globalization—Louisiana shrimp sell today at the same price they brought in 1970. If you are going to pay for diesel fuel (ten times more expensive than in 1970) to catch a thousand pounds, you had better catch ten thousand pounds and rely on economies of scale to cover your note and eke out a little profit. The small family trawler has gone the way of the small family tractor. Forty-to-fifty-foot Biloxi and Canot luggers that might have been built in the backyard from scrap have been replaced by steel-hulled “slabs” 65 to 120 feet in length.

It is too soon to know the spill’s effects on the fisheries or those of the Corexit used to disperse the oil. Everyone wants to know, Can we eat the fish? Are the shrimp tainted? How long will we be without oysters? The Deepwater Horizon spill is estimated at more that four million barrels; Exxon Valdez spilled 750,000. But the Gulf is 600,000 square miles of open water, with 650 quadrillion gallons of water (that’s one thousand million million, or 1015); Alaska’s Prince William Sound is smaller by a factor of ten (sixty thousand square miles).20 According to Mike Voisin, “There is still oil out there, but the toxicity is pretty much gone.” As chairman of the Louisiana Oyster Task Force, Voisin has the huge challenge of protecting the country’s perception of Louisiana seafood. However the damage to the fisheries plays out, the damage to the brand has set in. Legendary P&J Oysters closed in June for the first time in 134 years.21 Some restaurants in New York City specify that their seafood is “not from the Gulf.” On the other hand, high-profile restaurateur Alice Waters receives a weekly shipment of Gulf shrimp for her famous Chez Panisse restaurant and tells me “they are the most delicious shrimp I have ever had.”

Voisin is ambivalent about the decision to release huge amounts of river water to the east and west bank wetlands to drive oil away from the oyster grounds. Occurring just as the oysters were going through their reproductive cycle, releasing their spat,22 the “freshening” killed not only oysters ready to be harvested but the next harvest as well. On the other hand, it worked. Of the 7,500 miles of Louisiana shoreline, only four hundred miles, according to Voisin, received oil. No oil penetrated any oyster grounds in the Delta. Areas that were “freshened” will have to be rehabilitated. Nonetheless, last September Voisin predicted that the Gulf oyster season from public grounds would reopen in mid-October and run through April. And, in fact, by mid-October only a few public grounds were still closed: Pass á Loutre and Barataria Bay on the west bank, and Chandeleur Sound on the east bank. Speaking in mid-October, Voisin averred that because of extensive third-party testing, Louisiana seafood is safer than it has ever been. He joked that there was so much testing being done on Louisiana seafood that there was little left to eat.23 Yet he worried about who would man the processing plants when the oyster fishing returns. BP paid shuckers six-month wages. “Will they come back in time for the Christmas rush?” Voisin wondered.

>This map, based on U.S. Geological Survey data, shows both historical land loss between 1932 and 2000 and the land loss that is projected to occur between 2000 and 2050 if no remedial action is taken.

Last September the New York Times sounded this optimistic note:

Yet as the weeks pass, evidence is increasing that through a combination of luck (a fortunate shift in ocean currents that kept much of the oil away from shore) and ecological circumstance (the relatively warm waters that increased the breakdown rate of the oil), the gulf region appears to have escaped the direst predictions of the spring.

While its findings were disputed by some, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported several weeks ago that the oil was breaking down and dispersing rapidly, probably limiting future damage from the spill.

And preliminary reports from scientists studying the effects on marshes, wildlife and the gulf itself suggest that the damage already done by the spill may also be significantly less than was feared—less,
in fact, than the destruction from the much smaller Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989.24

The Times does not mention, however, the huge fish kill in Bayou Chaland on the west bank of the Mississippi that Bob Warren reported to the Louisiana Wild Life and Fisheries and to the Times-Picayune.25 It was the first of two such kills in Plaquemines Parish within a week. Blaming a combination of low tide and high temperatures resulting in low oxygen levels in the water, state officials say the kills are unrelated to the oil spill, but no one really knows for sure.26

And yet, even if the shrimp and oysters and finfish are unaffected in the short term or in the long—a big if—one can already reflect on the passing of the culture that was once built upon gathering them. The world that sustained my Plaquemines ancestors was less subject to collapse following disasters because the ecosystem was then more vibrant, complex, and robust. Their lives, especially their culinary lives, were also more vibrant, complex, and robust. This is not romantic primitivism. Life was hard. But when it came to putting food on the table, life followed the seasons. Spring, summer, and fall were cornucopia, and even winter was rich in oysters, fish, waterfowl, and other game.

By contrast, when you have a big note to pay on your trawler, you must embrace the efficiencies of monoculture. “Get big or get out,” declared Department of Agriculture head Earl Butz in 1971. The fisheries, which the USDA also oversees, followed in the path of big agriculture, pursuing commodities, as Butz recommended, “from fencerow to fencerow”27 (in this case, shore to shore). You don’t fish oysters in oyster season, and shrimp in shrimp season. You fish until the fishery collapses, following the example of Omega Protein in their near monopoly of the menhaden or pogey fishery.28 Or you fish until globalization collapses the market price, or until a disaster like the oil spill collapses it for you.

Richard McCarthy, who has nurtured a thriving New Orleans green market network of farmers, fishers, and foodies for almost fifteen years, offers a radical and darkly optimistic vision of our future. A committed locavore since before the word existed, McCarthy believes that the silver lining in the BP oil spill is the collapse of the industrial fisheries, the end of the big trawler, a chance to return to a sustainable, pre-industrial kind of fishing. “Or is it postindustrial?” he asks with a laugh.

“What is killing us,” says McCarthy, “is a religious devotion to efficiency. The fishermen who sell at our markets are the happiest fishermen in Louisiana.” Off the industrial grid, they fish not for the bank’s ever-gaping maw but for customers who care how the fishing went this week and ask, how’s the family n’ ’em. McCarthy wants to bring the model of Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farms to the Delta.

The BP oil spill’s cloud is so darkly apocalyptic, literally and figuratively, that it seems to have us all looking willy-nilly for something good to come out of it. For John Barry, author of the superb Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, the spill will finally get the wetlands the attention and the federal funds they need.

“What about the oyster lobby?” I asked him. For decades oysterman have resisted the river diversions and siphons that would redirect silt from the river to nourish and rebuild the wetlands. For them, the problem is that oysters thrive in brackish water of just the right salinity; river water lowers the salinity beneath that threshold.

“They [don’t] have anything like the stroke they once had,” Barry replied by e-mail. “I think they’ll get paid some compensation and steamrolled.”

Glen Pitre of Lafourche Parish, just west of Plaquemines, adds another piece to the oyster puzzle and imagines his own silver lining. With a smile that is dead serious, Pitre calls himself “a fourth-generation environmental refugee.” Dislocation is an old story in the Louisiana wetlands, one told eloquently by Mike Tidwell in Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana’s Cajun Coast. Pitre’s great-grandfather grew cucumbers along Bayou Moreau near Barataria Bay, on land that is now underwater. His grandfather moved to Leeville, his father to Cut Off, Glen himself to Rockport, each a move to higher ground. “Places where I rounded up cattle as a boy,” Pitre relates, “they now catch shrimp.”

For Pitre, “The oysterman’s bemoaning the encroachment of fresh water from the diversions and siphons is a false argument.” Before the levees were built in Plaquemines and Lafourche, he explains, natural reefs lay deep in the bayous and bays, large enough that fewer private leases were necessary. Call them the oyster commons, free to be tonged onto your lugger. As the wetlands dissolved, it was the salinity of the Gulf—not the river’s sweet water—that encroached, so oystermen cultched beds closer and closer to the mainland. In recent years, public reefs have produced only 20 percent of the catch.29 “Either you move oyster beds, public and private, further out toward the Gulf as the diversions build new wetlands, or you keep moving human habitat.” This statement came from the son and grandson of oystermen; the emphasis from a “fourth-generation environmental refugee.”

Pitre and his wife, Michelle Benoit, have been making feature films and documentaries about life and loss in the wetlands for decades. For them the silver lining is that, post-Katrina, and especially now post-BP oil spill, the grassroots awareness of the need to save the wetlands has, well, taken root. Since Katrina, more and more regular folks all over America seem to know that it was not Katrina’s winds but its storm surge that got us (with help from the fecklessness and malfeasance of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers). “Even non-geeks,” Pitre believes, “seem now to understand that if the levees are your rampart, it’s too late.” So much—the birthplace of jazz, the soul of America, some say—hangs on increasing that understanding, especially in Congress.

Pitre acknowledges the market pressures to grow large, to industrialize the fisheries as monocultures. But he argues that the conditions for being a part-time commercial or even recreational fisherman—Richard McCarthy’s vision of a sustainable future—are also quite strong. For two dollars you can obtain a state lease on an acre of bayou bottom and grow enough oysters for many a gumbo and oyster stew, with plenty left over for your Thanksgiving oyster dressing.30

While there are fewer and fewer shrimpers, Pitre points out that “come opening day, you can walk boat to boat across Barataria Bay. If the wetlands are there to provide the nursery and the fodder, you can’t overfish shrimp.”

Of course, this was Thomas H. Huxley’s magisterial pronouncement about cod over a century ago.31 The same has also been said of menhaden. Now both fisheries are largely overfished, which puts me in mind of my Plaquemines grandfather’s adage, “If ‘if ‘ were a skiff, we’d all go for a ride.” Any return to a sustainable fisheries model hinges on the resurgence of the fisheries themselves; and that, in turn, hinges on regrowing the wetlands. Pitre points out that “the necessary awareness is arriving just when America is broke,” adding, “I don’t know how you overcome that.” As with rebuilding the levees after Katrina, funding problems are exacerbated by lack of political capital and political will. Pitre quoted one wag who wondered, “How are we going to get Governor Jindal to believe in hydrology when he won’t even believe in evolution?”

If the wetlands go, all the silver linings unravel, as does life as we once knew it in Plaquemines—and New Orleans.

I’ll say it again: We simply don’t know the BP oil spill’s long-term effects on the fisheries. But I discovered one near-term silver lining while fishing recently with Dr. Jay DeSalvo. An emergency-room physician, Jay is a hometown boy who stayed in New Orleans even for his residency. It is hard to dislodge New Orleanians. He stayed after Katrina to work the ER, to empty the refrigerators of fifteen friends and neighbors, and to climb roofs to help repair them. He grew up fishing with his father, who is from Lafitte on Barataria Bay. Jay was happy to stay. Now he keeps a small boat in Shell Beach, a fishing community in St. Bernard Parish on the east bank of the Mississippi facing Breton Sound.

We traveled half an hour south along MRGO, the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, made infamous in the aftermath of Katrina because it funneled the storm surge up into East New Orleans, with catastrophic consequences. Dredged in the 1960s by the Army Corps of Engineers, it was a quarter of a mile wide when it was dug. Now it is over a mile wide, testament to the power of tides to erode marsh, and the irresponsibility of the Army Corps. In a first-of-its-kind ruling, a federal judge ruled that the Corps was accountable for damages attributable to MRGO.

When we got to the fishing grounds where the tide rushed into a small bay, we quickly tied into the redfish and speckled trout. We were fishing live shrimp. But Jay was frustrated to catch one non-keeper after another, each below the allowable limit.

After a while, Jay found the silver lining: these peanuts in a few months would be hefty catches. Young trout and redfish are part of the bycatch hauled up by trawl nets filled with shrimp. They are simply thrown overboard, dead. The trawlers we had seen on the way out, not with holds bulging with iced-down shrimp but garlanded instead with orange oil-containment booms, promised great fall fishing.

“Small payoff,” he offered with dark irony as he threw another peanut back, “for what may prove the end of a way of life.”


1. Christopher Hallowell, Holding Back the Sea: The Struggle for America’s
Natural Legacy on the Gulf Coast
(New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 243.

2. Native son Walter Isaacson writes: “Walking on a recent night near a wild and crowded French Quarter, I had a realization that struck me like the smell of humidity and flowers that I notice every time I arrive back in New Orleans. The city had not only come back, but in many ways it had come back better than before. And it’s done so in a way that Walker Percy would have appreciated: by rising above the everyday state wherein people only care about themselves. While much work remains, the spirit of the city has been renewed.” “A City’s Renewal Animated by Entrepreneural [sic] Spirit,” in Innovations: Technology | Governance | Globalization (special edition for the Tulane-Rockefeller 2010 Model City Conference, 2010): 22. I must hasten to add that this is a perception not shared by those who have been unable to return.

3. John Barry, Rising Tide (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998), 97.

4. New York Times, 15 November 2005.

5. Hallowell, Holding Back the Sea, 17.

6. Letters of Marie Madeleine Hachard, 1727, trans. Myldred Masson Costa (New Orleans, la: Laborde Printing Company, 1974).

7. William R. Stringfield, Le Pays des Fleurs Oranges (self-published genealogy, 2001, at


9. Audrey Jacomine Cascio, Family Affairs, self-published memoir.

10. Interview with Alan Vaughn, Louisiana State University Agricultural Center county agent, Point à la Hache, Louisiana, February 2006. On Steinbrenner see Certified organic oranges are
available online from L’Hoste Oranges at

11. Interview with Foster Creppel, proprietor of Woodland Plantation, Myrtle Grove, Louisiana, November 2005.

12. Mike Tidwell, Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana’s Cajun Coast (New York: Vintage, 2004).

13. Interview with Alan Vaughn.

14. Interview with Mike Voisin, member of the Louisiana Oyster Task Force and head of Motivatit Seafoods, Inc., February 2006.

15. John Besh, Southern Foodways Alliance conference, Oxford, Mississippi, October 2005.

16. Hallowell, Holding Back the Sea, 197.

17. For information on Louisiana coastal wetlands loss see


19. Interview with George Barisich of United Commercial Fisherman’s Association, 14 September 2010.

20. Interview with Mike Voisin, 15 September 2010.

21. As oysters have begun to be available in the Fall, P&J’s have been “improvising” ways to deliver oysters as they come in. See Brett Anderson, “New Orleans Family Oyster Company Devises New Business Model to Stay Alive,” Times-Picayune, 7 November 2010, at

22. George Barisich, head of the United Commerical Fisherman’s Association, reports that spat production was reduced by 75 to 80 percent.

23. Interview with Mike Voisin, 14 October 2010. Although the public perception may differ, Voisin explained the rigorous nature of the risk assessment applied in the tests in this spill. “Reject” or “action” levels of pah, the toxic compound in petroleum, have been increased sometimes one-hundred, sometimes one-thousand fold over normal action levels. While the public perception is that the “smell test”—literally testing by smelling—is the sole test being applied, there have in fact been forty thousand gas chromography tests, none positive. Voisin explained that while the average annual American consumption of oysters is half a pound, tests have been based on the supposed consumption of 9.5 pounds, an increase of twenty-fold. The action level in oysters has been increased from one part in one million to one in one hundred thousand. No tests have proved positive.

24. Leslie Kaufman and Shaila Dewan, “Gulf May Avoid Direst Predictions After Oil Spill,” New York Times, 13 September 2010, at

25. Bob Warren, “Huge Fish Kill Reported in Plaquemines Parish,” Times-Picayune, 13 September 2010, at
. George Barisich
reported to me a large kill in St. Bernard Parish, too.

26. Associated Press wire service, 16 September 2010, at

27. Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (New York: Penguin, 2006), 52.

28. H. Bruce Franklin magisterially tells this story in The Most Important Fish in the Sea: Menhaden and America (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2007). Menhaden are “the most important fish in the sea” for two reasons. They are the only fish in the sea that eats phytoplankton, algae, and thus 1) turn sunlight into protein and 2) can clear the huge algae blooms that are creating the dead zones in the Chesapeake and at the mouth of the Mississippi. Being at the bottom of the food chain, they are the main fodder of all the food and game fish we relish and rely on.

29. Jeffrey Meitrodt and Aaron Kuriloff, “Thanks to Lease Arrangement, Louisiana Leads Nation in Oyster Production,” Times-Picayune, 11 May 2003, at

30. An acre can yield one thousand hundred-pound sacks; each sack can yield six to ten pounds of shucked oysters (interview with Mike Voisin). That one thousand acres is the state limit suggests that not all such private beds are recreational. According to the Times-Picayune, some families, despite the limit, control fifteen thousand acres. 472,000 acres are available; 419,000 were leased as of 2003.

31. On cod see Mark Kurlansky, Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World (New York: Penguin, 1998). The Gulf menhaden is a different species with a two-year cycle of renewal, compared to the three-year cycle of the East Coast species. They are depleted but less endangered. The oil spill reduced menhaden catch by 50 percent, perhaps because menhaden are filter feeders.

A comparison of menhaden and shrimp is instructive. Both eat algae and the plant nutrients from marsh detritus. Both are so plentiful because their spawning capabilities are mind-boggling. Both release millions of eggs that quickly hatch in estuaries, in Hallowell’s terms “breeding ground, nursery, [and] food source” (Hallowell, Holding Back the Sea), 197