Just after a Saturday's dawn, Nunez Seafood on BARATARIA BAY is ominously quiet. Randy Nunez, 51-year-old heir to the family-run shrimp, crab and fish processor, sits in a worn leather chair behind a battered wooden desk twirling the ends of his graying handlebar mustache. There's not much else to do. Just a few years ago, this time of day would have seen the dock aswarm, its conveyor belts grinding, ice being wheeled from the backs of semi-trailers and crates of fresh fish being carted into a cooling room. Today, thanks primarily to sky-rocketing fuel prices, many of the fishing boats that once-crowded the Nunez dock are staying put, finding it cheaper to stay at home than go out to sea.
Boats will come this morning and while we wait Randy and I compare life stories. "When I was a high school senior my father made me an offer," he says. "He said either he would pay half towards my college and half towards a new car, or 100 percent for a car. I chose the car - a green Dodge - and came to work for him fulltime. That was more than four decades ago, and I'm still here, happily.
"But the business has definitely changed. At this time of day we used to have boats stacked up, waiting to get to the dock to unload. They would have been at sea for several days. Now they're going out just overnight and coming in with a quarter, a third of what they used to catch." Just up the bayou is a processing plant where Nunez sells what he buys. "Their prices are down, so I can't pay what I used to. It's a bad scene all the way around."
I've come to Nunez dock to meet Tracy Kuhns, wife of a fisherman, a fisherwoman herself, mother to five, grandmother to fifteen and now the LOUISIANA BAYOU KEEPER. Her job is helping the fishermen, most are her neighbors and friends, continue to make a living and simultaneously trying to keep the bayou that is both their workplace and backyard clean. It's proving a difficult job, on both counts. Rulings against net fishing have hurt; so have abandoned oil and gas facilities left behind in the heart of the bayou.
With her husband Mike and local fisherman Gene Hickman (he grew up on the bayou; his father was one of 23 children who lived and fished here too) we take a fast boat out onto the bayou headed towards the Gulf of Mexico for an empirical inspection of how things are doing. It's eye opening on a variety of fronts: Coastal erosion is everywhere; Hickman points out fishing camps that are literally sinking in the muck. Oil and gas pipes and storage tanks are abandoned everywhere; we motor by slowly and spy leaking pipes and oil washed up onto the shore. Tall swamp grass is marked by a thick black line a foot above the water, which Tracy calls the "high oil line."
This is their backyard. These waters give them their livelihood (fishing) as well as drinking water. Hurricanes chase them out nearly every year now. Fuel prices and over fishing are killing their business. Mike has given up fishing and has moved onto a more profitable venture, renovating hurricane-damaged homes and businesses.
photograph: Fiona Stewart
"Look at that," Tracy points as we drift by an abandoned fuel storage tank. An abandoned orange boom was left behind and is now washed up on the grass-lined shore. "The problem here is that while we have dedicated grassroots people out here reporting the mess left behind by the oil and gas companies, there is no enforcement. When I find these leaking messes I make calls, but no one will take responsibility, and no one will clean it up. Now they're talking about turning them into fish farms, which is a complete cover up."
Given the oils and chemicals spilled in the waters they call home I wonder if she's worried about bringing up children and grandchildren in the vicinity. She hesitates before answering. Of course she doesn't want to subject any of them to the potential hazards of the polluted waters that surround. "But this is our home. What are we going to do, where are we going to go? Pack up, move to Iowa? I don't think so."
Several hours later, back at Nunez Seafood, it's turned into an okay day although Randy admits he's paying fishermen half of what he paid for shrimp and other fish just a couple years back. But like Tracy, he wouldn't do anything differently. "What would I do if I wasn't here," gesturing to the 'family' of fishermen, dock workers and retired fishermen who treat his dock like a second home.