National Geographic : 2010 Oct
• marshes, bordered by the Atchafalaya River on the west and the Mississippi on the east (map, page 54), there is no shrimp shery or oyster harvest; neither are there reeds and grasses for nesting and migrating birds. Without the marsh- es, the rich human culture of the bayou has no foundation. " ese are working wetlands," Gay Gomez, an author and naturalist who grew up on the Louisiana coast, told me. " e land, the wildlife, and the people are inseparable here." That's why, on day 22 of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, EPA Administrator Lisa Jack- son declared that the federal government was doing everything in its power to keep the oil from reaching the marshes. But within a month of the explosion, the oil came to the marshes. I ' in a simple, syrupy tide. It came in broken tendrils that slipped past the barrier islands and oated north on cur- rents driven by a warm southern breeze. e oil changed shape as it moved. In one bay it speckled the water with brown turds and spit gobs. In another it coalesced into purplish ra s the size of small swimming pools. It was as thin as a rainbow sheen or as thick as carnival ta y. Where it struck, it stuck. On Devils Point, a half-mile strip of saltwater marsh in Timbalier Bay, the oil glommed on to oyster grass stalks and mangrove leaves. In Red sh Bay, near the mouth of the Mississippi, it blackened the ankles of ten-foot-tall roseau cane stalks. On Barataria Bay's Queen Bess Island, one of North America's most productive bird rookeries, thick tide pools of oil hugged the shore and tarred the feathers of brown pelicans as they dived for food. Day a er day, the wind pushed the oil farther into the marshes. Miles of absorbent and contain- ment boom, o en laid haphazardly and le un- attended, could not stop it. The marshes of Barataria-Terrebonne es- tuary are already the fastest disappearing lands on Earth. Star ved of Mississippi Riv- er sediment and carved up by hundreds of oil- and gas-exploration canals, the marshes are subsiding into open water at a rate of 15 square miles a year. " is oil is hitting a coast that's already sick," said Kerry St. Pé, direc- tor of the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program. e locavore movement has become trendy in America's hipper zip codes, but down here folks have been living o locally grown food for hundreds of years. Roadside diners serve up shrimp po'boys, French bread stu ed with the fried pride of Barataria Bay. Children bait strings with chicken necks to catch blue crabs. On Sundays friends and family gather for lo- cal craw sh or crabs boiled in huge pots over propane burners. So in the early days of the spill a har vest fever swept coastal Louisiana. Mitch Jurisich and his younger brother, Frank, oyster farmers in the coastal town of Empire, hired local sher- men to dredge their oyster beds in an e ort to harvest before the oil hit. at lasted only a few weeks, though. By early June the fever had bro- ken. Oil forced the closure of almost all oyster and shrimp grounds along the coast. "My sub- contractors are all gone now," Mitch Jurisich told me. " ey can make twice as much money lay- ing boom for BP, and I can't blame 'em. I thought about going all out, working 14-hour days," he said. "But then I decided that I wasn't going to let BP dictate how I lived my life. We're running like normal now." Every morning in predawn darkness Juris- ich would pilot his oyster barge up the Empire Channel toward the shallow estuary of Adams Bay. Jurisich's grandfather, a Croatian immi- grant, first raked these beds in 1904. Today Mitch and Frank lease some 14,000 acres of oyster beds from the state of Louisiana. On June 4 the Jurisiches' oyster beds were among the last ones open in Barataria Bay. e oil was roughly six miles away. " e way this wind's blowing, it'll keep moving the oil closer inland," Mitch predicted. "I expect a call this a ernoon telling us this is it," meaning a shutdown. With BP's well discharging tens of thousands of barrels a day, there was no way of knowing whether such a closure would last days, It came in broken tendrils. It coalesced into purplish ra s. It was as thin as a rainbow sheen. It was as thick as ta y.