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Gulf Shrimpers Wonder: “Are We Next on the Extinction List?”

image of Barry Yeoman
Todd Rooks working on his shrimp boat, the Cajun Queen. He and his wife Darla are wary of the shrimp they catch and don't know how long their livelihood will last.
         
During a long night on the bayou, one couple worries about the future.

Darla and Todd Rooks idle their shrimp boat, the Cajun Queen, at the edge of a marsh in Louisiana’s Grand Bayou, near the town of Port Sulphur. It’s 12:40 a.m., and a full moon lights up the Mississippi River Delta. The couple is waiting for the tide to start falling, forcing the shrimp to flee the protection of marsh grasses and swim into the open bayou. Once that happens, the work will be non-stop. While they wait, Darla, the boat’s captain, leaves the cabin to join Todd on the deck, a rare intimacy during the workday. She lights up a Benson & Hedges. Todd sticks a pinch of Skoal into his cheek and nuzzles their dog Dixie, a Catahoula cur. Together, they savor the stillness.

Ongoing Series: Losing Louisiana

This is the Rookses’ third night back shrimping since the Deepwater Horizon blowout last April. After six months, it marks a return to the familiar to them. Both are from shrimping families. The dock they left 40 minutes ago is located at the same marina where Todd and his cousin used to climb down the levee as boys and steal Coca-Colas from empty oyster boats. Where we’re sitting now, we can see the faint lights of Happy Jack, the fishing community where Darla spent her childhood. Shrimping is part of the fiber of Plaquemines Parish, the 100-mile-long peninsula south of New Orleans where Darla and Todd live. In 2009, shrimpers pulled 19 million pounds from the parish’s 1,600 square miles of water, more than one-sixth of the state’s total harvest.

But both of the Rookses -- and particularly Darla, the more talkative of the two -- wonder whether their livelihood can continue. She worries that shrinking wetlands will reduce the Gulf’s shrimp population and make the area even more vulnerable to future hurricanes and oil spills. And she is not convinced the water is clean or the shrimp totally safe after the BP spill, despite official assurances. She continues to shrimp, cautiously, because she needs to survive. But she is also speaking her mind along the way.

*****

Darla Rooks grew up entirely oriented toward the water. Her parents caught shrimp and oysters to sell, shot alligators to eat, and trapped otters, nutria, mink and raccoon for their pelts. When she was not in school, Darla was likely to be found in the canal behind the family home in Happy Jack. "When most kids can’t even play in front of their houses nowadays, me and my brother were getting in a little flatboat, pulling ourselves down this bayou, skiing on a little skimmer board made out of plywood and rope," she says. "We killed our ducks here. We caught crabs here. We had a blast."

She also dreamed of a bigger world. "I decided that I wasn’t going to do what my daddy did," she says -- so at 17, she moved an hour away to Harahan, just outside New Orleans. Darla drove an ambulance, became an emergency medical technician, and transported bodies for the coroner’s office. "It wasn’t too long before I found out that all that stuff that was in town didn’t make me happy," she says. She moved home, and in her twenties married Todd, who also grew up in a local shrimping family.

The couple -- she’s 47, he’s 45 -- began shrimping together full-time about 12 years ago. They bought the Cajun Queen in 2005; the 37-foot-long fiberglass boat is the second they’ve owned. Five months after they bought it, Hurricane Katrina battered Plaquemines Parish. The storm destroyed the rental house where they lived and blew their boat into a canal, where it sunk. By the time they recovered it, seven months later, it was covered with barnacles the size of nickels. The Rookses received $19,000 from FEMA, not enough to cover the damage. They made the repairs by themselves, then this year bought an $8,000 generator days before the BP spill.

*****

The day I spend with the Rookses doesn’t start so well. With an east wind blowing, the tide in Grand Bayou is taking longer than usual to recede, causing the shrimp to hang back in the grass. At 2:40 a.m., Darla decides they can’t wait; in the distance, she sees the lights of what looks like a competitor’s boat. Todd pulls the lever that lowers the L-shaped aluminum frames that are attached to the nylon nets. Darla returns to the cabin, grabs the wheel, and takes the Cajun Queen for its first "push" of the night.

When Todd raises the net again, what he sees are not shrimp but rather porgies and shad and croakers, which have no value to the couple. "All fish," Todd says, wishing his wife would have waited before starting the push. "She’s just too nervous." He unties the rope that holds closed the tails of the nets -- the bottom of the funnel where the shrimp would normally be -- and releases the useless bycatch into the bayou. He shakes the remaining fish loose from the nets as Darla doubles back to their starting point. That’s when she realizes her mistake: The lights she saw belonged to some oil-industry equipment. "Yeah, my boat was a rig," she says, her hand on Todd’s shoulder. "Pat you on the back. You were right."

Todd settles into the cabin to watch Mixed Martial Arts on TV. At 3:35 a.m., he tests the tide and finds it starting to lower. "Let’s try it," he says.

"I don’t want to try it if we’re going to catch fish," Darla replies, a bit gun-shy.

"Let’s go," Todd says.

This time is the charm. A few minutes into the trawl, Todd briefly lifts one net to check the catch. "Fish is gone now," he declares.

For the next six hours, Darla steers up and down Grand Bayou. She points out manmade canals cut the by the oil companies, which, along with the river levees, have hastened the loss of the delta’s wetlands. Less marshland means less habitat for young shrimp, she says: "They’re knocking out the breeding area. They’re knocking out their safety zone."

Every so often, Todd lifts the nets, unties the ropes, and dumps the catch onto the boat’s fantail. Then comes the long process of separating the shrimp from the bycatch. Todd shovels the catch into a white plastic barrel that he has filled with salt water. If he gets the salinity correct (which he always does), the fish will float and the shrimp will sink. Todd dumps the fish overboard. He shovels the remaining shrimp into blue plastic baskets until he can pour them into the boat’s enormous foam-and-fiberglass ice chest. He stops long enough only to fetch a energy drink from the cooler. Dixie terrorizes the blue crabs, exacting revenge for an attack when she was a puppy. Darla pilots the boat up and down the bayou, feeling meditative. "It‘s a stress reliever," she says, "It’s like riding a motorbike or painting a picture -- you just have that one thing on your mind."

*****

The BP spill shut down the Rookses’ shrimping business for five months. They received four weeks’ worth of clean-up work from BP’s Vessels of Opportunity program, and Darla believes they were cut loose because she wouldn’t stop speaking her mind about the oil. They were living with relatives at the time of the spill, but without an income, couldn’t afford to pay rent, and neither Darla nor Todd can stand being a freeloader. So they moved onto their boat, into a closet-sized cabin with twin bunk beds, a coffee pot, a small portable stove, and a microwave.

Not only were they suddenly in dire financial straits, but the ecosystem surrounding them was in ruins. "As we’d be going down to Venice to provide paperwork for our claims, and searching for a job hopefully working with BP, there were sea gulls dead all over the road," Darla says. "They weren’t hit by a car. They didn’t have oil on them. There was nothing wrong with them that you could see. I actually saw a couple of them flying and drop out of the sky."

She fell into despair. "At one point, I put a hangman’s noose on the back rigging of the boat. I was ready to stick my head in it," she says. Todd had trouble dealing with his wife’s anguish. "I didn’t understand her side of being depressed," he says. "She didn’t understand my side of getting mad. And I’d get mad at her for being depressed." He pops open another Red Bull as he tells the story. "I can understand why there was all the divorces,” he adds. (Steve Picou, a University of South Alabama sociologist who studies the human impact of disasters, say there were "numerous divorces" after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. It’s too early, he says, to compile divorce data for the BP spill’s aftermath.)

A doctor acquaintance intervened when Darla felt suicidal. "He told me dead people don’t talk, dead people don’t sue, dead people don’t tell the truth, and dead people don’t bother BP. So I started thinking: You know what? I’m going to do what’s right and I’m going to tell the truth, even if it costs me financially." Last month, at a town hall meeting in Buras, Rooks told a group of fisherman, "We need to stand up and fight or there will be nothing left. If you say nothing, you get nothing."

One of the riskiest things for Darla to say is that she remains unsure that shrimp from oil-affected waters is healthy to eat. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say Gulf seafood has been tested extensively and there’s no reason for alarm. "Although crude oil has the potential to taint seafood with flavors and odors caused by exposure to hydrocarbon chemicals, the public should not be concerned about the safety of seafood in stores at this time," says the FDA’s website. Darla doesn’t feel so confident.

"I’m a seafood dealer. That’s how I make my living. And I’m telling people, when it comes from that area over there," -- she motions miles away -- "do not eat it. I don’t care if the president of the United States, or the Queen of England, or BP, or the Coast Guard says it’s safe. If you get in shallow water five miles out and you kick up some dirt, oil comes to the top. It doesn’t stay there for long because it sinks back down because it’s been dispersed, but it does come to the top. And shrimp normally bury up in the mud in the middle of the day and come up at night when it’s nice and cool. [Now] they’re swimming on top of the water in 100-degree temperature during the day. I’m 47 years old and never seen that before in my life."

That’s why Darla and Todd were slow to start shrimping even after the first areas reopened. "It took me that long to decide that the area that I chose to go in was clean. I had to keep seeing shrimp coming from that area that didn’t have oil products stuck in their gills, and crabs that didn’t have a funny color to them, didn’t have a funny smell to them. It took me that long to decide that OK, I’m going to take a chance with my conscience and sell that seafood." While she’ll sell her catch wholesale, she still won’t sell it directly to a consumer. "If that individual got sick," she says, "I would feel personally responsible." She worries that by the time the water is clean again, "all the generations that know how to do it and can teach it to someone else will be dead already."

*****

As dawn approaches, the net grows heavier each time Todd lifts the aluminum frame. The Rookses are now catching shrimp faster than Todd can sort them. He’ll need to finish sorting at the end of the workday.

Still, he keeps his equanimity. Most of the time Todd wears a patient, almost childlike smile. Then at 6 a.m., the cable connecting one of the nets to a 350-pound weight snaps. Todd’s eyes go wide for a minute; he shucks off his gloves and rubber overalls, strips down to his shorts, and dives 26 feet into the water to fix the connection. "It’s not just a job -- it’s an adventure," he says, smiling, as he emerges. "Now I’m really behind."

The only time Todd fully loses his composure comes three hours later, when three airboats -- perhaps used by surveyors, perhaps hired by BP to clean up the water -- come barreling around a corner, cutting off the Cajun Queen and creating a fearsome wake. Todd’s blues eyes grow steely. He yells, waves his arms, gives the boats the finger, but they continue their acrobatics. This activity, called "swamping," can damage property and threaten lives. Darla has known shrimpers who have lost thousands of dollars’ worth of catch overboard when their boats were swamped. "Todd’s been throwing fish at people [who swamp us]," Darla says. "It won’t kill ’em, but you know it when a porgie hits you at 50 miles an hour."

Still, today’s harvest is shaping up to be respectable; the shrimp will later weigh in at 1,264 pounds -- "not great, not horrible," Darla says. At 9:45 a.m., they pull up the nets and move to a marsh where they can stop and continue sorting before heading inland. Three or four dolphins swim to the boat waiting for fish to be thrown overboard, while seagulls hover overhead. This is one of the favorite moments of the couple’s day, but both note that neither the dolphins nor the gulls are as abundant as they were before the spill. "A couple of years ago, there was so many dolphins, you could pet them," Todd says.

The scarcity spooks Darla. "If all this stuff’s missing, are we next?" she says. "Are we the next thing on the extinction list?"

Strong words, she knows. But these days, she says, no one will stop her from speaking her mind. "I can’t be scared of Mr. Obama or Mr. BP or Mr. Coast Guard," she says, "because Mr. All-Those-People put their pants on one leg at a time. They’re people just like me, and we have a right to this land."

image of Barry Yeoman
Barry Yeoman is a freelance journalist based in Durham, North Carolina. In addition to OnEarth, his work has appeared in Discover; O, The Oprah Magazine; AARP The Magazine; and Audubon. His web site is www.barryyeoman.com.
Mr. Yeoman never disappoints. I especially like the way he allows the voices of these "everyday" folks to come through. It is great to hear from people who are being directly affected by this disaster and who are so passionate. I really admire the Rooks for stating their case so eloquently. Great job!
This article is a tangible description of a way of life and livelihood I have vaguely heard about, but here it is brought real to me.. I used to grow shrimp in shrimp farms, but had little contact with marine shrimpers, small or large scale... It was very interesting to hear about this couple's work and the new context in which their work, the environment and the politics of the oil spill all interrelate. I also like how the author brought their personalities into the story in a very authentic way. Good piece.
I don't think that shrimp fishing is sustainable and more efforts should go into making shrimp farming more environmentally sound. The oil spill tragedy is a good opportunity to reflect and reassess priorities.
William I totally agree. All the talk about "worthless" by-catch. Those fish have value to the ecosystem and shouldn't be thrown overboard dead. There has to be a better way to fish for shrimp (and other sea life for that matter) without negatively impacting a whole host of other unintended species.
A very moving article. It saddens me that, regarding food safety, we are apparently relying on the judgment and good consciences of small commercial fishermen, that they will act against their own immediate interests to ensure that we aren't poisoned. The Rooks are skeptical even as corporations and government rush to declare the crisis averted. How is this just? Why should they bear that weight alone? A really thought-provoking article, and though it seems odd to say, very lovely also.
I agree, that was a telling paragraph. Good for the Rooks for being conscious of this issue, as I'm sure so many of the other fishermen are who live and die by these waters. But still, a very scary prospect -- even if the gills aren't clogged, as they note, what other kinds of long-term effects remain? And when, if ever, will we really know?
I read a lot about farmers and fishers and the stories behind our food but somehow haven't read one quite like this before - and I wish there was more coverage like this. I like how it weaves telling details and anecdotes into the big picture story. And I've got one question (which I admit is tangential) -- what about that by-catch (which I know is often a big environmental issue with fishing). Is the bycatch released alive? or dumped overboard dead? and how big a problem is that with Gulf shrimping?
hi rodney, to answer a question you have on by-catch, gulf coast fisherman are said to be one of the worst as far as by catch goes but there are a lot of things that are not accounted for. Bycatch is something no fisherman wants in their nets, it slows you down and is a pain in the butt. most fisherman in the south use fish excluders which knocks out roughly 75% of the by catch, the remaining bycatch is very benificial to the rest of the echo system, we feed birds, crabs, fish and dolphins with what is remaining. To tell you the truth, without the bycatch, me and my family would not get to enjoy the fantastic feeling of hand feeding dolphins, this is something that just cannot be explained. Bycatch in places that have fish that are important such as salmon and tuna are a problem and it is being dealt with but in the south, the only thing you are truly catching as bycatch are pogies and i really don't believe in my heart that this bycatch adds up tp any echo damage other than some poor lady not having enough perfume. Hope this helps a little with your bycatch question.
Pure anguish. I don't think the rest of the country has any idea what really went on in the Gulf during those awful months (and continues), but for compelling stories like this. Great job as always by Barry Yeoman.
The Rooks are very courageous to speak their minds despite the government and FDA's assertions. I would be more likely to trust their first hand accounts of the situation and I am glad to have articles like this that give us their perspectives. It seems unlikely to me that everything would go back to normal so quickly, but I am hoping that the devastating impact eases on them and their livelihood.
Thank you for this insight into how real people's lives are affected by the spill. Beautifully written.
My heart goes out to the Rooks, their trials and tribulations, their way of life, which at the moment is as fragile as the echo system they rely on. I think it speaks volumes that they and many who share their profession recognize a potential collapse that outsiders like myself can't even fathom.
Thanks everyone for generous and provocative comments alike. Bycatch is a complex issue that deserves a separate article. I have not researched it thoroughly, but I do know that marine scientists have raised serious concerns about shrimp bycatch. (Two comprehensive papers I've seen on the general bycatch issue worldwide are at http://assets.panda.org/downloads/bycatch_paper.pdf and http://www.fao.org/docrep/008/y5936e/y5936e00.htm.) U.S. regulations require shrimp trawlers to use bycatch-reduction and turtle-excluder devices. Those regulations, along with technological innovations (often initiated by the fishing industry itself), have reduced bycatch in the United States. The night I went out with Darla and Todd Rooks, I observed a few hundred pounds of bycatch, almost all of which was small fish like porgies. The fish, most which didn't survive, were eaten by the dolphins and gulls that surrounded the boat. Many reports on bycatch focus on turtles, marine mammals, and birds. By contrast, the Rookses caught only one vertebrate that night: a small turtle that then climbed overboard on its own volition and almost certainly survived. I have long relied on the Monterey Bay Aquarium's "Seafood Watch" guides when it comes to sustainability advice. In those guides, the Gulf's brown and white shrimp both get a middle rating of "Good Alternative"-- lower than "Best Choice" (because of remaining bycatch issues) but higher than "Avoid." Consumers are, however, encouraged to avoid imported shrimp because of higher bycatch levels and damage to habitat. (See http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/SeafoodWatch/web/sfw_factsheet.aspx?gid=20.) I talked with Darla Rooks recently about the bycatch issue, and she might weigh in here. Stay tuned.
this is for mr.carr that commented on shrimp farming. mr. carr, before you speak on something of this magnitude, maybe you should do some research first. # 1, shrimp farming has been the # 1 reason a way of life for wild shrimp harvesting is comming to an end, a way of life can will never be able to be replaced. # 2, if american people like yourself, would research the products and the pollution being put into these ponds, you would never want to eat a shrimp again unless it was caught in the wild and in it's own natural enviroment. As a commercial fisherman who has done this all my life, i can only hope that people such as yourself will diminish their thoughts of shrimp farming and start supporting the last few people left who give their all to try and supply the american people with good tasting wild caught shrimp.
As the media douse their lights on the gulf, we need more stories to remind us how horrible this spill really is! IS! Not was...that oil's still there, just scratch the surface.
Brilliant. Simply brilliant. The raw truth expressed and the simple way it was just...spoonfed to the reader, I love it! I couldn't stop reading and I don't know these people but I felt you really did their personalities justice! That last quote is something special, and something very, very true...I'm glad you saved it for the end!
It may be of interest to those reading here to know that the FDA changed the allowable toxicity levels in fish and seafood to 3 and 4 times the levels on or around June 5, prior to the known horrors of the Deepwater Horizon Spill as it is so politely called in the media. The tests for allowable tox levels up unitl very recently, have been only on the meat or edible parts of the seafod, not the skin, shell, gills or poop veins, which is where toxins would concentrate. There are groups on Facebook who regularly post, collect info and rally in towns along the coast to keep the focus on this story and get the truth out. The government has admitted to blocking media on this story and BP has a $50M ad campaign in place telling people it is okay and all over. It is not. And this story, while well intentioned, does not begin to expose the truth of environmental, economic, wildlife, human and future degredation in and to the Gulf of Mexico now and in future as this untold crime in the Gulf unfolds. but thank NRDc for telling it and all of you for reading it. For many of you, this is a start.