Last week, The Lens traveled to Lafitte in Jefferson Parish to talk with fishers whose livelihoods may be severely hampered, if not suspended by the BP oil spill. On that day, May 4, the oil hadn’t invaded lakes and estuaries that far in from the Gulf, nor had shrimping, crab-catching and fishing been closed down yet in this area. We spoke to Chaz Bizani and his girlfriend Tess Boudreaux, a crabber and shrimper respectively, who shared with us how the oil would affect their catch, and also the unproductive experience they had at a training session held by BP in their community for fishers who wanted to help with the oil containment. As of May 9, their concerns of losing their ability to fish became a reality when Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries began shutting down fishing activities, due to oil infiltration. Here’s what Bizani and Boudreaux had to say:
The Lens: So at the fishers recruiter meeting you attended, what did BP reps say they would provide for protection?
Bizani: Rubber suits and gloves, but they didn’t say anything about respirators. You sweat and that stuff gets in your pores. For me, I have small children. My youngest son is 2-years-old. I might want to have more kids. I don’t want to be dead in 10 years because I made a couple thousand dollars. I just want to do what I love. That’s why everybody’s here. They talked about going out in the boat for a few months, but if they shut us down for five years what are we going to do? I broke my rotator cuff and I can’t get a normal job because I can’t pass no physical. I can’t touch the ground. I’m in therapy now.
The Lens: Why do you believe it will be five years before you can fish again?
Bizani: Because that’s what they said. It could be four to five months before they stop the leak they said. The seafood won’t be able to be eaten for five years.
The Lens: So have you signed any contracts to work with them?
Bizani: I haven’t signed a contract or agreed to anything yet because I don’t think any of them know what to do. It’s just so much panic right now. We may just wait and get unemployment because that’s what they told us to do, get some food stamps, and have them pay our light bills, because that’s what they said. I’m not going out there to lose my boat and then be held responsible, because that’s my life. I’ve worked from that boat all my life.
The Lens: What happens if your boat encounters oil?
Bizani: Well, on the boat you have to cover your shrimp with ice so that [the shrimp] won’t get tainted with the oil. But in my boat I have crabs in boxes that sit on the floor, so if it gets all over the floor then the whole boat is tainted. What am I supposed to do?
The Lens: Did they mention helping you clean your boats?
Bizani: Nothing was mentioned about that. You maintain your own boat. See, if I get that crude oil on my engine it will burn the engine up. They want you to have your own insurance on your boat and all of that. The motor is our main concern. A boat ain’t a boat without a motor. My boat is worth $20,000. My motor is $10,000. It’s $25,000 to $40,000 for some engines. I once paid $13,000 for a used motor that I lost in [Hurricane Katrina].
The Lens: Do you carry liability on your boat?
Bizani: No, because it’s usually just me and my friends. You can’t just bring a random person on the boat. Really there’s no way you can get hurt, but stuff happens. I can’t afford to pay liability. Since Katrina, you really can’t afford anything. Before Katrina, I had excellent credit. Right now I can’t get nothing. I can’t get a loan.
The Lens: How will your boating supplies be handled?
Boudreaux: They said you have to buy your own supplies. Your own life jackets, and your flares. The only thing they supply you with is the gloves, and the jumpsuits and some kind of oil to put on your skin.
The Lens: How many people in Lafitte would you estimate do commercial fishing?
Boudreaux: I’d say about 80 percent of the city makes their living off the water
The Lens: When are your normal crab and shrimp seasons?
Bizani: I don’t have a season, I’m all-year round.
Boudreaux: For shrimp, it’s six months out of the year. For those six months we go until July and then they stop for a few weeks before opening it back up in December. After December you have to go out in the Gulf to go trawl.
Bizani: But they have boundaries out in the Gulf, and if you go too far they’ll take your nets and your catch.
The Lens: So will the criminal background checks keep fishers from work?
Bizani: Yes, they background check, drug test, and all of that. The company doing it is Advanced Industrial Services in Texas. Why it’s in Texas I don’t know. This is also through the [Louisiana] Workforce Commission. I filled out an application with them first before I got the BP contract. But I said I’m not signing anything because I don’t know what to look for now. I’ve already gotten the raw end of the deal before. I didn’t read the fine print. In school, I couldn’t comprehend what I read so I have to get [Boudreaux] to read it for me. I need someone to read it for me so I can understand. When I read, I just read words. I have to keep going over it.
The Lens: Is there tension among the fishers over the background checks and drug tests?
Bizani: Yeah, everybody is getting tense. We don’t want a lot of money just enough to get by — a certain amount of salary. If they need us to all go in, we go in and go take care of it. We already know where to go. This is our water. Instead of bringing the Coast Guard in from New York, who can’t get a boat off a trailer — one fisherman had to help get a boat off a trailer for five Coast Guard men. They’re lost and they don’t know where they are around here.
One guy came up to me, and he said, ‘Where am I at?’ I said, ‘Excuse me?’ He said, ‘Where am I at?’ I said, ‘You have GPS.’ He said, ‘Yeah, but it doesn’t have the name of where I’m at.’ I said, ‘Sir, you are in The Pen.’ He goes, ‘Well can you show me out?’ I said, ‘Look, there’s Lafitte right there. Do you see the bridge? Go that way.’ I watched him go off and let him go.