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Oil Spill Threatening Fishing Economy, Culture in Louisiana

Oil clean-up in a Louisiana marsh
Oil clean-up in a Louisiana marsh

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U.S. authorities have expanded fishing restrictions in the Gulf of Mexico because of fears of contamination from the BP oil leak. The spill poses a threat to the safety of seafood from the Gulf, and the future of the fishing industry in Louisiana and nearby states.

Environmental damage from the oil spill is spreading across the Louisiana coastline. Crews are deployed in Lake Barre to clean marshland hit by oil residue. Officials say oil is moving onto land, in spite of boom and other containment measures.

Environmental experts say the oil is likely to kill the grass in this marsh. But crews try to collect it before it spreads to other areas. Coast Guard chief warrant officer Adam Wine says the work involves using special towels to wipe up the sticky oil.

"It flowed in with the various tides," he said. "We're not necessarily seeing anything out in the open water, but then it comes and mixes in with the grass. It sticks to anything and the grass is the first thing out there and it sticks right to it."

BP oil company is preparing its latest effort to cap the six-week-old oil leak. But as oil continues to flow into the Gulf, more coastal communities are feeling the impact.

Local wildlife officials and lawmakers are holding public meetings to hear from fishermen and seafood sellers. Many say they are now out of work, and they worry for how long.

"They need the beach to lay [eggs]," said one official.

"If the beach is not there, they are going to die," said another.

U.S. authorities have closed 26 percent of federal waters to fishing because of the spill. But they say much of the Gulf of Mexico remains open, and seafood from unaffected areas is safe.

Louisiana officials say the risks come not just from oil, but from chemical dispersants being sprayed in the water. Officials say seafood on the market is safe. Environmental scientist Jeff Dauzat says officials are testing fish from across the state.

"Right now we're mostly sampling for hydrocarbons and other bacteria, but what we would like is expand into some other chemical compounds that may be contained within the dispersants," he said.

Oil spill or not, Louisianans say they will not give up seafood. Hundreds came to a recent seafood festival in Belle Chasse.

"Boiled crawfish, shrimp, fried shrimp," said Debra Bychurch. "Just about any kind of seafood you can think of. Alligator, alligator sausage."

Grilled oysters are another local favorite. But local oyster and shrimp production has been hit hardest by fishing closures due to the spill. Some fear that supplies will begin to run low, causing prices to jump.

Ray Oelking is selling soup made with crawfish - a freshwater species that is unaffected by the spill so far.

"Mostly it is going to be the other products, everything else is going to go up," he said. "Shrimp, crab, oysters, things like that."

Many at the festival say it is more important than ever to support the local seafood industry. Debra Bychurch says the spill is threatening the region's way of life.

"The oyster fishermen and the shrimpers that have lived here forever," she said. "It's such a huge part of our culture, and a huge part of our income as well."

BP is promising to pay compensation to those affected. Some residents fear no payment can undo the damage.

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