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Marsh Sadness

Hurricanes, BP oil spill take affects on saltwater fishing's ‘Promised Land'

Marsh Sadness
Booms were placed in an attempt to keep oil from the Louisiana marsh. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

This is the first in a series of articles detailing the outdoor opportunities and environmental threats in the "Sportsman's Paradise" of the Louisiana marsh. 

VENICE, La. -- The southeast Louisiana Delta is largely considered one the finest fisheries in North America, if not the world.

That fact is not lost on Ryan Lambert, the Vice President of the Louisiana Charter Boat Association. Lambert has worked the waters of south Louisiana for more than 30 years, and he’s seen some incredible catches on his boats in years past.

Problem is, in the past two years, there have been few people to catch those fish, much less ride his boats to what many people consider the "Promised Land" of saltwater sports.

Many have blamed the lack of action on some major action that rocked the Gulf Coast on April 20, 2010. That’s when the British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon rig exploded off the coast of Louisiana -- killing 11 people and creating an enormous impact on the outdoors people who make their livelihoods in this part of the world.

Initial estimates speculated that anywhere from 35,000 to 60,000 barrels of oil per day were being spewed into the Gulf of Mexico, and it did so for more than two months. A sizeable chunk of that oil was reported as winding up in the marshes of southeast Louisiana and the few beaches it has. And what didn’t wind up on the land along the entire Gulf Coast region was sunk using dispersants that recent studies have claimed may even have been more harmful than the oil spill itself.

Lambert, a longtime voice for the charter association and area fishers, said he’s not sure what to think of his dilemma at this time. But one thing’s for sure -- there are problems.

"There’s no oil to see, because of the dispersants," Lambert said. "I’ve built a long a loyal following over the past 31 years of fishing and if you come with me, you can get some reds and some flounder. On a good day, you can come down and catch 30-plus specks. But how long will people be coming?"

That’s a question that is echoed by many people in southeast Louisiana, not only in Lambert’s business of being a charter captain, but for the recreational sportsman, as well. They wonder aloud if the sport fishing industry will ever return to its Glory Days -- moments that made south Louisiana the spot to catch fish for many if they chose to do so.

"The numbers (of people coming here to fish) are so down, it’s incredible," Lambert said. "It’s easy to say you’re catching fish if you’re on a good spot. But from Bay Jimmy to Venice (at the mouth of the Mississippi River, and the hardest hit area of the oil spill,) it’s not good at all. I’d say my speckled trout fishing is down 95 percent. We’ve really been relying on redfish for the past couple years. But how long can you hammer them?"

Lambert’s thoughts lead him back to the spill, which he believes may have killed zooplankton, the micro-animals that bait fish need for food. He thinks the fish usually found near his camp in Buras may have moved out of necessity. He said the lack of traffic in his area proves his point.

"Venice looks a ghost town," Lambert said.

Mike Frenette is a longtime guide out of the Venice area who also isn’t sure what has happened to his usual catch, but he’s certain it’s nothing he’s seen before the spill.

"I can only speak from a Venice standpoint, but I’ve seen a lot of things that I’m concerned about," Frenette said. "The number one most concerning thing in this general area since 2010 is the loss of speckled trout in the Venice area. For all practical purposes, there are none. There are some guides who make long runs past Breton Island, into the Chandeleur chain or all the way back into Delacroix. But the big ones, up close (in Venice,) they’re not here."

As for the fish he does catch?

"There have been some sores, some lesions, bumps," Frenette said. "All my career, I’ve never seen stuff like that, especially on the larger redfish. I’m not an ichthyologist or a biologist, but what’s happening is new to me."

Frenette, like Lambert, is one of the most respected guides in southeast Louisiana. If he has clients to fish, he can put them on some great catches, he said. The major problem now is finding people to come make a return trip.

"My business is considerably off from what it was in 2008 or 2009," Frenette said. "For practical purposes, we lost a year of business (after the spill) with people going somewhere else to fish. And it’s hard to get those people back. When people would fish with me, before they’d left, they’d book for next year. Now, we may slowly get them back, but we lost a lot of income in the process."

The idea that Louisiana seafood was not, or is not, currently consumable has been part of the problem, according to both Lambert and Frenette. They don’t believe that was ever true, and neither does world-renowned chef John Besh, an avid outdoorsman himself. Besh points to numerous tests that have been conducted both on the state and federal level as reason to believe what consumers purchase is safe to consume, and he gets his seafood from areas that have shown no adverse effects due to the spill.

The difference, they all say, is that people have had to look in different areas of Louisiana for the seafood they crave. The current belief, as told by many, is that the best catches have moved farther inshore to places like Port Sulphur, Hopedale, Delacroix, Lake Pontchartrain, and perhaps even more to west Louisiana and neighboring states to the east.

"Public perception is the biggest battle we fight," Besh said. "The only way to fight that is with good signs (from the industry,)" Besh said. "It’s not marketing, it’s not ads. It has to be real and be tangible."

The larger battle, perhaps, will be where outdoors interests meet industry. Harlon Pearce, the Chairman of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board, (and a longtime fisheries advocate,) is well aware of what’s at stake when it comes to the local seafood industry.

"This is a strong estuary. I describe the head of the Mississippi River as the top of an ice cream cone. We get the cream, while everyone else gets the drippings. It’s been a displacement of the product," Pearce said, referring to good crops of saltwater fisheries seafood coming from west Louisiana and numerous areas in southeast Louisiana.

There also are many who worry about future problems with the seafood industry, which relies so heavily upon the once-abundant marsh that flourished in south Louisiana. Times-Picayune Outdoors Editor Bob Marshall said the continued erosion of this area’s marshes are exacerbated by events like the BP oil spill or the wrath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

"The spill is to our coast what cold is to a cancer patient," Marshall said. "The cold eventually will go away, but the patient will still be dying of cancer. So don’t let this temporary problem blind you with the real issue. That doesn’t mean the oil spill wasn’t significant. The major question remains what the long-term impacts of the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons released by the oil will have.

"So far there isn’t much evidence of declines in major flora or fauna. However, we won’t know what the long-term impacts might be until we get there -- five, 10, even 20 years out.”

University of Miami researcher Jerald Alt may have had the right analogy "We’ve been put in a movie, and we don’t know the ending."

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