Oil Spill Wreaks Havoc on Gulf Fishing Industry

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VENICE, La. -- As the clean up effort intensifies on land, oil continues spilling into the Gulf of Mexico. With every passing day the futures of thousands of fisherman along the coast grow dimmer.

Many families have been fishing the shrimp, oyster and crab rich waters for generations. It has become a way of life. But now the area's fishermen know it will likely take years for the water that sustains them to recover from the oil that now poisons it.

Livelihoods in Question

"Can you imagine trying to clean that?" asked Alfred Pete, better known as Hawk, as he pointed to pristine marsh lands off the coast of Louisiana that he fears will absorb the oil like a sponge.

Perseverance is nothing new to his family. Pete's wife Cherie opened a sandwich shop a year ago after rebuilding her family's home that was flooded by Hurricane Katrina.

Already her regular customers have stopped eating out. The scariest part, she said, is listening to silence in her shop.

"If things go down the way it has in Alaska with the Exxon Valdez, that's what my shop will sound like. My dreams will be silenced," she says.

The livelihoods of thousands are now in question. At least a quarter of the nation's seafood is harvested from the Gulf Coast region and, as more oil spills into the water, fishing bans have been widened.

Watch video here of Louisiana's Breton National Wildlife Refuge, which has been impacted by the recent oil spill.

So far, all attempts to stop nearly 4 million barrels of oil from leaking have failed and nearly a million feet of boom have not been enough to keep the oil from washing ashore.

Larry Schweiger, president of the National Wildlife Federation, is worried that the tens of thousands of gallons of dispersements that BP dumped into the ocean to break up the oil have made the problem worse.

"What has happened is that oil has gone down in the water column where the fish are exposed to it and where the shell fish are exposed, where shrimp are exposed to it - all the things that live in the Gulf of Mexico in that area are exposed," he explained.

A Disaster to Rival Katrina

Thousands of oil platforms dot the Gulf of Mexico. Refineries line the shores. Despite so much activity surrounding oil, Gulf Coast residents have never experienced a spill of this magnitude.

Remnants of destruction caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita are easy to find, but many say the fallout from this latest disaster will be worse.

Carey O'Neil, a fishing captain based in Venice, La. said, "(With) Katrina, if you were able to save your boat you could come back and go to work. But this here, I mean, everybody had their boats, but they can't go to work because of the spill."

"Whatever is in the water gets amplified in the fish tissues and fish eat other fish and so every time you go up in the food chain the concentration gets higher and higher," Schweiger explained.

Health officials continue to check for toxins in fish before they are sent to markets.

Spill's Far-Reaching Effects

Meanwhile, the owners of Bouche, one of New Orleans' newest restaurants, say the oil spill is already affecting their bottom line.

One week after the fishing ban went into effect, they say the price of certain seafood jumped by 30 to 40 percent.

"We see the prices driving up and it comes a point that it's not economically feasible to sell the product," Gary Bernette, co-owner of Bouche, said.

Bernette's partner at the U.S. Prime Steakhouse down the street, Aaron Hagmann, said, "It affects absolutely every single element of our business. You take out once piece of a puzzle, the picture doesn't look as good anymore."

Restaurants are now looking to East Coast suppliers who buy from fishermen working the Chesapeake Bay.

"We're getting calls from companies we haven't heard from in years that are looking for crabs and oysters because they can't get it out of the Gulf right now," Meade Amory of L.D. Amory and Company in Hampton, Va. said.

Some vendors could benefit, but overall, the oil spill is proving disastrous to the entire industry.

"All and all you can expect to see higher prices for crab and crab meat for the balance of this catastrophe," Johnny Graham of Graham and Rollins Seafood, also in Hampton, said.

Disaster Aid in Question

Louisiana's Pointe a La Hache, located on the east bank of the Mississippi river, was the first community affected by the fishing ban.

Lanny LaFrance's family has been fishing in the small, tight knit community for nearly 100 years. He and his neighbors recently awaited the arrival of Catholic Charities.

Since the oil spill is man-made and not a natural disaster, some of the assistance available to the region after hurricanes may not come this time.

"We don't have gas, we don't have ways to pay utilities, we are out of diapers, um pretty much every day basic needs we're needing help with," Rachel Morris, the wife of a fisherman, said.

"You done crippled our community, even for putting money in our church that we just got back," said Stanley Encalede, who dropped out of school to start fishing.

"It was hard from day one when it happened, mentally it was hard," he said. "The first week, no paycheck, it got worse. The second week, no paycheck, it's miserable."

Fishermen like Encalede in their 50s told CBN News they have no idea how to start over.

Colleen Bosley, a disaster coordinator with Catholic Charities said, "I think prayer support is the number one thing that we can do right now."

For now, residents must wait and watch as oil continues to wash away their way of life.

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Jennifer Wishon

Jennifer Wishon

CBN News White House Correspondent

Jennifer Wishon is the White House correspondent for CBN News based in the network’s Washington, D.C. Bureau.  Before taking over the White House beat, Jennifer covered Capitol Hill and other national news, from the economy to the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  Follow Jennifer on Twitter @JenniferWishon and "like" her at Facebook.com/JennWishon.