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Gulf's Delacroix Islanders Watch As Their World Disappears

The BP oil spill is just the latest disaster to hit a fishing community that has struggled with hurricanes, erosion and competition from cheap imports. The fishermen ask themselves about the future and worry that they may be the last of their kind.

Jason Melerine was born to the water. His father fished, his grandfather fished, his great-grandfather fished. At age 11, Melerine drew pictures of the boat he would someday own. The day he turned 16, he quit school to go crabbing. Now 28, he can barely read and write. Fishing off Delacroix Island, a sliver of land alongside the Louisiana coast, is all he knows.

In the first weeks after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded last April 20, Melerine, like most Louisiana fishermen, feared the worst: that the cocktail of oil and dispersant would immediately kill the state's already fragile fishing industry. His worry consumed him. He pulled patches of hair from his chin and his leg. He landed in the hospital with migraines. He contemplated suicide.

"For us, it's a life, it's what we love to do," said Melerine, whose four children eat crab so often they complain about it. "It's what we know to do. Water is my life."

The story of the Gulf oil spill has often been told through numbers: more than 200 million gallons of oil spilled, more than 1.8 million gallons of dispersant dumped on top, more than $16 billion spent by BP on cleanup, claims and other spill-related bills. The human toll is more difficult to pinpoint, which is why ProPublica took a longer look at what happened to the fading fishing community of Delacroix, an island romanticized and mispronounced in Bob Dylan's "Tangled Up in Blue" and treated as a nostalgic touchstone by writers who marvel at people who continued to live off the land and the water, passing skills from father to son.

Despite the fishermen's fears, the worst didn't happen. The oil never coated Delacroix Island, and it didn't hit the surrounding parish waters nearly as much as predicted. The well was capped. BP seemed to pay whatever money was asked. Scientists declared the seafood safe. The country moved on.

But for the fishermen of Delacroix Island, moving on hasn't been so easy. All the old uncertainties about their declining community -- hurricanes, erosion, the intrusion of modern life, falling seafood prices -- are still with them, but now new uncertainties are piled on top, underscored by the recent deaths of dolphins along the coast and crabs off Delacroix Island. Even if nature somehow rights itself, the BP money that has flowed to the Delacroix Islanders may have inadvertently hurt their community and market by encouraging some fishermen to stay home. The fishermen ask themselves about the future and worry that they may be the last of their kind. Some have taken anti-depressants and sleeping pills to cope with the stress.

Jason Melerine heads to the next line of crab pots off Plaquemines Parish, La., in May. St. Bernard Parish fisherman tried to earn as much income as possible before authorities shut them down because of the BP oil spill. (Melanie Burford/Prime for ProPublica)"I guess they been taking care of us all right, but they done tried to cover it all up with money," Melerine said in November. "Money don't take care of everything. We might be living it up now because we got money. But three years from now, we might not have nothing. We might not be able to sell nothing. This oil's gotta affect something."

Melerine had wanted his 3-year-old son, Jason Jr., to become a fisherman. But now he doesn't know. He worries that his son might end up working a "land job," a term that is almost an epithet on Delacroix because it means the end not only of fishing but of everything that comes along with fishing.

Time on Delacroix Island is measured by seasons -- blue crab, brown shrimp, white shrimp, oyster and hurricane -- and by what can be legally shot -- alligator, duck and nutria. Crab and shrimp boils bring neighborhoods together like barbecues elsewhere. Men wear gold necklaces with anchors and proclaim "Delacroix Pirates" in large stickers on the back windows of their 4X4 pickups. During crab and shrimp seasons, women talk about their missing husbands like they are in the military.

On the surface, all this seems untouched by the spill. In fact, the community looks like it has been blessed with sudden good fortune, with new boats at the docks and new SUVs in driveways. But new purchases can't change realities that the fishermen would prefer to ignore: that their hold on the seafood market has slipped once again. That an unusual number of crabs died over the winter. That their sons might need to find jobs on land, not on water. And that their island world is disappearing just a little bit faster than before.

A World Apart

About 30 miles southeast of New Orleans, Delacroix was always a world away, part of a maze of marshlands and bayous spilling like tree roots from the Mississippi River into the Gulf. Canary Islanders, including Melerine's ancestors, eventually settled here after being sent by the Spanish king in the 1770s and 1780s to help protect Louisiana from the English. Hurricanes and floods frequently wiped their palmetto huts off the map. So they rebuilt, again and again.

In the early 1900s, private speculators bought up thousands of acres of wetlands, hoping to strike oil and gas. The future was written for a slice of the world that would be asked to support petroleum, shipping needs and flood protection, not just fishing and trapping.

Often the environment lost. Canals dredged in the 1930s to explore for oil and gas and improve shipping led to the removal of thousands of acres of marshland and the intrusion of salt water. Levees and dams built along the Mississippi River ended up damaging the delta, because the diversions prevented fresh water from flowing into estuaries, killing off plants and trees that couldn't live in pure salt water. The dams also stopped the flow of sediment essential to building up the wetlands and the barrier islands.

The islanders resisted change, even after a bridge and a paved road connected Delacroix to the 20th century. Children often learned Spanish before English. Many families rarely traveled up the road, because during the 1940s and 1950s, they didn't have to. There were nine grocery stores, seven bars, three dance halls, a movie theater, a roller-skating rink and even a pink two-story school, the oldest fishermen recall. Everyone on the island was somehow related, often in several ways. Family trees looked more like spider webs. Many oldest sons were named after their fathers, and names were continually recycled. To keep everyone straight, almost everyone got a nickname: Wimpy, Clumsy, Taco, Weeto, Cheeto, Boo, Tattoo, Spoon, Scoop, Bozo, Blowsie, Teta, Tutu, Fofo, Buster, Bebut, Little Bebut, Hopper, Poncho, Junior, Plug and Satch, whose real name was Lazarus.

The island's decline began in September 1965, when Hurricane Betsy destroyed many of the 400 or so homes the oldest fishermen say were there at the time. Some families rebuilt, putting their homes on high stilts of pylons and concrete blocks. Others moved off the island and up the road, including Jason Melerine's parents, although every family who ever lived on Delacroix -- whether a Campo, Gonzales, Martinez or Serigne -- still considered the island home, even if home was just a state of mind.

Everything seemed to be shrinking, including the fishing industry. New laws banned most net fishing for fin fish, leaving commercial fishermen to rely mainly on crab, shrimp and oyster and driving a wedge between commercial and recreational fishermen. Farm-grown shrimp from Asia, particularly Thailand, began undercutting the price of Louisiana shrimp. Every year, Louisiana lost about 15 square miles of its coast to erosion. At that rate, all its wetlands would be gone in about 300 years, according to the United States Geological Survey.

And there Delacroix Island sat, at the edge of Louisiana, now with about 130 homes and an old billboard near the end of its only paved road advertising a long-closed machine shop: "Welcome to the End of the World." For the next big storm, Hurricane Katrina, it was almost a dare.

Howie Serigne, left, and Christian Guerra head out to fish off Delacroix Island, La., on Sept. 1, 2010. (Melanie Burford/Prime for ProPublica)Katrina destroyed all but a dozen of the island's homes in 2005, while sparing two men who ignored the evacuation order and drank their way through the storm. The hurricane balanced a car on a wrought-iron fence and tossed a house on top of a dock without breaking the power line outside. It hung an icebox in a tree, where it still perches. It threw the "End of the World" sign into the bayou.

Katrina and the three hurricanes that followed -- Rita, Ivan and Gustav -- swallowed up most of the land owned by Jason Melerine's great-grandfather and erased 340 square miles of the Gulf's wetlands, an area almost the size of New Orleans. Delacroix Island, once at least 800 yards wide, was reduced to a four-mile-long fishhook-shaped spit of land, at most 300 yards wide. Instead of seeing green marsh out their back windows, the islanders now saw blue water. The equivalent of about 300 football fields worth of wetlands on the eastern edge of the island had just vanished.

A Delicate Balance, Upset

Delacroix became a different place than before. Returnees put up only 18 new homes, mainly trailers on stilts. Most were older couples or single men close to retirement. Recreational fishing guides filled the gaps, setting up camps and new buildings, furthering resentment and a sense that almost everything on the island was temporary. The closest store was 14 miles away, not down the street. Only three children moved back, their appearances on the lone island road so rare they were treated like tiny celebrities.

The fishermen fixed broken boats and rebuilt their docks, just as earlier generations had done. But prices for shrimp -- Louisiana's most lucrative seafood -- were falling drastically, because imported shrimp was flooding the market.

The average price fishermen got for all species of the largest shrimp in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi dropped from $6.05 a pound of headless shrimp in November 2008 to $3.60 a pound a year later. In 1989, there had been 1,338 licensed resident commercial fishermen in St. Bernard Parish, home to Delacroix and other fishing communities. Twenty years later, there were only 501.

Louisiana's shrimpers marched on the state capital twice in August 2009, and Gov. Bobby Jindal set up a task force [PDF] to study industry problems and help brand Louisiana shrimp. The goal was to make Louisiana shrimp a desired gourmet food, like Alaskan king crab, Maine lobsters or Kobe beef. Prices started to rebound.

And then the Deepwater Horizon exploded.

When Melerine went out on the water early the next morning -- pulling up crab traps, removing the catch, baiting the traps and dropping them back in the water -- he and the other Delacroix fishermen scattered through the maze of waterways worried more about the 11 men killed than about their own industry. They didn't know that oil had begun pouring from a broken wellhead almost a mile below the ocean's surface, about 80 miles to the southeast, in the same area where Melerine fished for shark every February.

The Gulf had always been big enough, bountiful enough, to support all comers. Louisiana supplied more than one-third of the seafood harvested in the continental United States, generating about $2.8 billion and supporting more than 26,000 jobs, according to the most recent figures available. Oil and gas industries pack even more of an economic wallop, generating about $70 billion annually in Louisiana and supporting 320,000 jobs, according to an industry-commissioned study from 2007.

Now that balance was at risk.

"This thing is an oilfield," Melerine would later say, almost incredulously, as he steered a shrimp boat along a bayou where red crab buoys and white oyster-claim posts were just feet from signs warning against dredging because of a gas pipeline. "I fished this my whole life, and I never thought about it before."

When authorities closed much of the Gulf to fishing, Melerine and his friends stacked hundreds of empty crab traps in their front yards and started to panic. BP paid many to help clean up the spill, often more for a day's work than they earned fishing. But as the months wore on, the BP work dwindled, and the fishermen's uncertainties grew. They didn't worry so much about this year's catch -- those shrimp and crabs had already matured by the time of the oil spill, and tests showed they were safe to eat. Instead, they worried about what the mix of oil and dispersant, out near where shrimp and crab spawn, could do to next year's catch, and the year after that.

The fishermen also wondered how long it would take oyster beds to recover. The fresh-water diversions that were used to push back the oil spill had destroyed the balance of brackish water necessary for oyster growth in many areas, and oysters generally take three years to reach marketable sizes. By anyone's measure, oysters had been devastated.

"We never been through this," said Eric Melerine, 31, Jason's older brother, weeks after the well was temporarily capped in mid-July. He's one of the top crab and shrimp fishermen on Delacroix, and before the spill he had bought equipment to harvest oysters. "We been through hurricanes, but we never been through something like this before. It's human nature to be afraid of what you don't know. Hurricanes are easy. You just come back and buy everything all over again. The oil -- it could destroy this from the inside out."

Fishermen Staying Home

Despite their fears, the fishermen seemed strangely calm by late October, as if they had decided to take a vacation from all the stress. And in a way, Delacroix had. The BP staging areas on the island had been shut down; only a few fishermen were still working for BP. And even though most waters had been reopened to fishing, many fishermen didn't go back to work right away.

By late October, most boats tried to get back to shrimping but some made only one trip that month. As many as one in five shrimp boats remained docked. Crabbing faced similar problems.

Michael Labat, left, and Jason Melerine, right, sort blue crabs in Plaquemines Parish, La., in May. (Melanie Burford/Prime for ProPublica)Tino Mones Seafood, one of the two crab dealers left on Delacroix, had only three men crabbing in November, compared with 30 the year before. On Nov. 2, nobody worked, so Tino's made no money. On that date a year earlier, in contrast, Tino's had bought 15,000 pounds of crab.

The fishermen claimed seafood prices were too low to justify taking out their boats. But while prices for the best crabs were down -- they fetched $2.25 a pound before the spill, but only $1 in November -- prices for smaller crabs and shrimp had started to rebound. In November, the average price paid for the biggest shrimp had risen to $6 a pound, without heads, in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, federal statistics showed -- about the same as in 2008.

There was another reason fishermen were staying home. Money. They had begun receiving their six-month emergency claims from the $20 billion BP compensation fund, and they knew more claim checks were on the way. Many spent the money as soon as it came in, on new vehicles, tattoos and toys, as if they had won some kind of twisted lottery. Vehicle sales at the nearest dealership jumped 41 percent. Jason Melerine -- whose sinewy frame is a map of tattoos of all he loves, his wife, his last name, a dead friend, even a rooster -- bought a $57,000 SUV for his family.

Some fishermen stayed home because of rumors that any money made fishing could be taken off future BP claims.

"It doesn't pay to fool with it," said Kevin Campo, a fisherman based off Delacroix.

And that could be true. In February, the compensation fund announced that the less money fishermen earned on the job in 2010, the higher their final claims would be. Staying home meant that fishermen would earn a larger payout than if they went back to work.

But most fishermen seemed unaware of one possible repercussion of not working: that they risked dooming their industry by not returning to the water. The longer Louisiana seafood was out of the market, the more difficult it would be to reclaim those buyers. Already, seafood dealers and restaurant and supermarket chains were getting shrimp and crab from other states and other countries.

"To get back this market is probably easily a decade," said Randy Pausina, head of fisheries at the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. "There's no way for me to sugarcoat it."

A crab-processing plant in Irvington, Ala., which normally depends on Louisiana crabs, managed to get some crab from Virginia and North Carolina over the summer and fall, but in December that supply ran out.

"It's all been 'the poor fishermen, the poor fishermen,' and everyone feels sorry for them," said Tony Lyons, the owner of Southern Aire Seafood, which employs about 40 people. "Now the poor fishermen won't go back to work because they're worried about settlements. It's about to put me out of business."

Jason and Eric Melerine were among the few who went back to the water as soon as they could.

"It disgusts me to no end," Eric Melerine said. "No one wants to work. Now more than ever, we have to work. But since they got BP money, no one does nothing. ... It's shameful what they're doing."

Jason Melerine, a ball of nervous energy who always has to be bouncing a knee, tapping a foot or smoking, needed to work even if the math made no sense. On one November morning, he spent $304 on ice, bait and fuel and then crabbed with his two deckhands for almost 10 hours. The men came home with just 540 pounds of decent crab, and Tino's paid them just 55 cents a pound, for a total of $297. The deckhands didn't get paid, and Jason Melerine lost money.

But that's the gamble of fishing -- and of living in a world where manmade disasters increasingly interrupt nature's natural rhythm.

By March, more fishermen had returned to work. They were hardly reassured by what they found. As many as one in three of the crabs they pulled up were dead by the time the boats reached the dock -- a rate they'd never seen before. Was it the oil? The dispersant? Or just the latest bit of bad luck in a downward spiral they'd long ago come to expect? Regardless of the reason, the fishermen had no choice. They kept going back to their boats, doing what little they could to hold onto the only world they knew.

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