Into the Gulf, Day 4: Of Fishermen and Forms

Daily reports on the BP disaster on the Gulf


Aerial view of the Gulf Islands National Seashore Park.

Before I say goodbye to camping at the national seashore, I need to mention something that a new friend pointed out yesterday. The park where I was staying used to be a fort, and remnants of that fort still stand, as well as bunkers that grow out of the side of hills like hobbit holes and grass-cracked stairs that lead up hills to nowhere. This fort was built after the War of 1812 to defend the Southern coasts and to keep the land here from being conquered by the British.  Which it did successfully until about three months ago.

If there is anything that all Americans -- conservative and liberal alike -- should agree on, it's this: Get these f___ers out of here.  Yes, we'll take their money, and we should. They need to pay for their mess. But BP should not be running the show. And they are running the show. Believe me, if you're down here, you know that they're running the show.  The only things missing are those red coats, pointy hats, and rifles with bayonets.

But I'm getting carried away.  I've barely finished my first coffee, and the daily fulminations have begun.  Smoke coming out of the ears and all that.  That's because this place provokes fulminating.  Not just the oil, of course, but the money flowing everywhere.  Yesterday, after I packed up my tent and drove over the bridge to the mainland, I decided on the spur of the moment to head into the enormous seafood store that I saw along the road.  I talked my way back into meeting with the store's owner, giving him a copy of my first osprey book, and talking birds for a while.  When he said that he'd seen a lot of "water turkeys," I assumed he meant cormorants, though someone later told me he was referring to Anhingas.  He invited me back into his office, where he spoke in a deeply accented and rumbling voice, obviously used to holding court.

"Fishermen are like farmers," he told me.  "But they're farmers who can't see their crops.  It's never been an easy job.  Now it's impossible."  Seafood is all about trust, and now the trust was lost.  I had noticed that all the fish out in the store were labeled by their origins in large print:  haddock filet from Gloucester, snapper from the East Coast and the Yucatan, grouper flown in from Costa Rica.  His had been a $13 million-a-year business, but profits had been cut by more than half.  The chemicals were worse than the oil; at least with the oil you could "let Mother Nature have a shot" at cleaning the Gulf with winter storms.   But the chemicals eroded trust.  Who wants to eat fish with that inside it? 

There was a dock next to the store where two shrimp boats, his own and that of a Vietnamese fishing crew, would pull up and supply the company with shrimp.  But no one wanted Gulf shrimp, and the two boats had become "vessels of opportunity," the Orwellian name for the boats that are being hired to search and skim for oil.  The pay was pretty good -- $2,000 a day for his larger boat and $1,500 for the smaller vessel owned by the Vietnamese.  But as Miranda, my waitress the next day in the fishing village of Bayou La Batre, put it succinctly: "The solution is temporary, but the problem is permanent."  As soon as the lights fade, and they are likely going to fade if the cap works and America moves on to its next spotlighted crisis, the payments will dry up.  And there would be no fishing to go back to.

In the meantime, there is another problem.  As soon as you sign on with BP, you also sign away the right to criticize your new boss.  Before I shook hands and said goodbye to my new friend, his store manager chimed in about the money that BP was paying fishermen: "It's just hush money, plain and simple."

* * *

There is a story you hear and may have even heard.  You hear it from locals and you read it in the paper and it even got printed in USA Today.  But though it is a new story, and though it is a particular, tragic story that happened to a particular, grieving family, it has also taken on some of the resonance of myth.  It will be, when all this is over -- if you believe that this will ever be over -- one of the remnant legends of the spill.  The story goes like this:

He was a good man, a strong man, who owned his own charter boat and made his living by bringing others out fishing and pulling fish out of the sea.  He led what the writer Henry Beston once called "an elemental life," a life of the outdoors, of wind, sun, rain, sweat.  Of course he lost his job when the oil started pouring into the Gulf, followed by the chemicals that were poured on the oil.  Of course he had little money saved to support himself and his children, two boys and a little girl, and his wife.  And of course he hated working for the idiots at BP -- they didn't even know how to tie a line to a cleat, let alone a thing about the Gulf weather -- though he admitted that the overall purpose of his new job was not a bad one: to spot and boom and eventually get rid of the accursed oil. 

But then came the form.  It was more than fifty pages long, an invoice filled with questions that had nothing to do with running a boat.  They wanted him to fill it out before sending him out on the water, needed him to fill it out, they said, in able to properly insure themselves and compensate him.  But it made doing his taxes look like a joke -- and when you're self-employed, taxes are no piece of cake.  A lot of things were pushing him, I imagine.  The oil gushing, the BP folks running the show, the prospect of a future where the Gulf yielded no fish, or if it did, no one wanted to eat the fish it yielded.  But in the end it all came down to this thing, this form.  It came to symbolize all that was wrong with what was happening.  What is a form after all?  A shape, a physical embodiment.  (The form I am writing in right now, for instance, is a blog post, and shapes the way that I write.)  And this thing, this form, became an embodiment of everything that was wrong in his world.

What had been right in the world?  Even before the oil, there had been a ton of stress, and the fish weren't as plentiful as they had been.  But still there were deep pleasures.  The camaraderie of the docks, the pleasure of pulling out in early morning, a fresh start each day, the cyclical feel of both the days and the seasons, the fact that he knew this place and that on the best days, when they puttered back in as the orange ball sizzled down into the water, he knew that, despite all the crap, what he was doing felt right.

The form was not about the season's cycles and was not about hard, honest work.  It came from the top down, the way the whole disaster did.  He hated it, and there was a meeting that morning that made him hate it -- and the whole thing -- even more.  Of course, he was angry and depressed about what was happening, and it would be wrong to say that the invoice, a mere stapled sheaf of papers, was the reason he ended his life that morning on his boat.  But it would not be wrong to say that those stapled pages symbolized something to him, something that he was perhaps unable to put into words, and it would not be wrong to say that it was in those pages that that something -- a feeling of rage, impotence, and sorrow -- found its lasting and final form.

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