Out on the bayou

🕔Jun 02, 2010

Kevin “Captain Monkey” Helmer perches on the edge of his airboat. A strong breeze tosses the humid air and huge Louisiana oaks, Spanish moss dangling from their limbs, dance in the wind.

Geographically, we are a long way from northwestern British Columbia. But culturally, the Louisiana bayou holds more in common with the region 4,000 kilometres to its northwest than one might expect.

Helmer was born and raised in the small fishing village of Lafitte, 20 minutes southwest of New Orleans. For the past few years he’s been running swamp tours for Airboat Adventures, helping tourists spot lazy alligators in the marshes and enticing them with marshmallows.

“It’s not bad for them,” the quick-tongued boat operator drawls about the ’gators. “They’ve done studies.”

Helmer’s two brothers, who also live in Lafitte, are both shrimp fishermen. Fishing is the town’s primary income and large, newly built houses attest to its financial success. Next is tourism, with fishing charters and boat tours increasingly contributing to the local economy.

Today, in the Gulf of Mexico, a damaged BP oil rig has been spewing crude oil into the Atlantic Ocean at an estimated 800,000 litres per day for over a week. While its effects (at the time of this writing) haven’t reached Lafitte, the future is on everyone’s minds.

“My older brother has a third-grade education. Shrimping is the only thing he knows,” Helmer says as his daughter rushes up to the boat to greet him. “He can’t read or write, but he’s a good fisherman.”

Much is still unknown about the spill, but yesterday’s newspapers proclaimed what local residents fear most: “Spill comes ashore.” The coastline is dotted with marshes and wetlands, habitat for the seafood Louisiana is famous for.

“The way the wind is, they say it’s going to hit the east side of the (Mississippi) river,” Helmer says, adding that his boss plans to take his tour boats to assist in cleanup efforts. “If the wind changes and it comes here, people are definitely going to suffer. The people that are going to suffer are the shrimpers, the crab fishermen and the oyster business.”

Louisiana’s $2 billion fishing industry provides more than just an economy. New Orleans’ 200-year-old port has attracted flavours and cultures from around the world, which blend with local seafood to form the basis for its many Cajun and Creole dishes like shrimp gumbo, crawfish étouffée and oysters Rockefeller.

Connected by a pipeline
The cultural—not to mention economic—importance of Louisiana’s marine life mirrors BC’s north coast, where crab, salmon and oolichan provide not only a livelihood but a lifestyle for local residents. But unlike Louisiana, BC stands to gain less from proposed oil and gas projects like the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline, which would create 4,000 short-term construction jobs and significantly less long-term employment.

The pipeline would also bring oil tanker traffic to the northwest coast, despite a 1972 federal moratorium designed to prevent crude from the Trans-Alaska Pipeline at Valdez from passing through delicate Canadian ecosystems en route to the lower 48.

The Louisiana spill has been compared to Alaska’s Exxon Valdez spill in 1989.

Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources spokesperson Liz Bicknell says the province recognizes the moratorium, but is confident in the environmental assessment process.

“Our ministry has been clear that nothing will go ahead unless it passes all the environmental assessment processes,” she says. “The minister has been clear that resource extraction will not be done at the expense of the environment.”

However, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency’s joint panel review terms of reference for the pipeline notes the “perception that there is a moratorium on tanker traffic” on the BC coast and that, “It is the Government of Canada’s position that there is presently no moratorium on tanker traffic in the coast waters of BC.”

Ironically, President Barack Obama announced lifting a moratorium to expand offshore drilling in the US less than a month before the BP spill, but has since said he will delay this until more is known about the disaster.

Ghost of economies past
“The oil industry’s been very good to us here in past decades. It’s provided incomes for a lot of families, yet we know it pollutes and it’s dangerous,” says Pat Walters, who was born and raised in the New Orleans area and has been a tour guide for nearly 18 years.
In recent decades, the economy has shifted toward tourism. It seems ironic that an oil spill could hamper the state’s move toward more sustainable livelihoods.

“We’re still recovering from Katrina—and in comes British Petroleum,” Walters says. “It’s going to affect the fishermen terribly, which will affect the restaurant business, which will affect tourism.
“What it does to the ecology is a whole other story. The ecology is so fragile to begin with, and then add the oil spill. It gives you pause to worry.”

Louisiana’s wetlands have been increasingly at risk for decades, from both natural subsidence and human-caused erosion. “We can compare it to a football field going under water every 15 minutes,” Walters says. Normally, this natural sinking would be offset by deposited sediment, but the levees that divert water away from residential areas carry silt directly into the Atlantic.

The canals that Helmer negotiates with his airboat were dredged to move petroleum exploration equipment through the bayous, carving this already fragile environment into increasingly smaller pieces that are more easily wiped out by weather events such as Katrina. As a result, marine habitat is increasingly scarce.

Seafood culture
As Walters notes with a shake of her head, “We love seafood here, gee whiz.”

Indeed, seafood restaurants and oyster bars throughout downtown New Orleans’ historic French Quarter number as many as its jazz bars. At Olivier’s Creole Restaurant, seafood dominates the menu: crab-stuffed mushrooms, pecan-breaded oysters and broiled catfish are just a few of the mouth-watering offerings.

Armand Olivier III opened this restaurant with his parents and grandfather 31 years ago and the menu reflects the family traditions embedded in the local fare, with dishes inspired by his mother, grandmother and great-grandmother.

“It’s not just economic. It’s following in your relatives’ footsteps. There are fifth and sixth-generation crabbers and shrimpers here. They were raised in the bayous,” he says. “It’s family identity.”
Just today, Olivier’s staff has fielded numerous calls from prospective tourists about the local seafood’s quality and availability. With fishing currently shut down in four states, he expects market demand from across the US will drive prices up.
When asked how he feels about the oil industry, Olivier chooses his words carefully.

“For the overall function of the economy, it’s fine. But the oil industry has ruled the American economy since the 1960s, and I don’t cotton to that well,” he says, using the southern expression to convey his discontent. “I want the government to do my bidding, because I put them there.”

In 1788, a fire tore through New Orleans, wiping out most of its buildings; in 2005, the city weathered hurricane Katrina. Now, it faces an unprecedented environmental disaster. But while it may struggle, there’s no question about its resilience.

“Maybe we’re not bright enough to know when to quit,” Olivier says, “but no matter what happens, this city is not going anywhere.”