- Associated Press - Sunday, July 18, 2010

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — After three long months, the bleeding from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico has been finally, mercifully stanched. But in so many ways, the prognosis remains uncertain.

Which species will rebound, and which have been pushed beyond the brink? Has the oil accelerated the die-off of marshlands that protect one of America’s great cities and make this the nation’s second most-productive fishing region? What effect will the BP spill have on the future of deep-sea drilling — at once boon and bane — in the Gulf?

And, of more immediate concern to people along the nation’s Southern coast, where will the millions of as-yet uncollected, unburned, unseen gallons of oil from the blown-out Deepwater Horizon well end up?

Second-generation Plaquemines Parish resident Sandy Reno isn’t sure she wants to wait around to find out the answers.

“I’m ready to pack up and leave,” says Mrs. Reno, 43, whose shrimper husband, like so many others along this coast, is now dependent on cleanup work from the company held responsible for the disaster. “When you’ve had enough, you’ve had enough. I’ve had enough already.”

Just as the stumbling federal response to Hurricane Katrina five years ago exposed not just chinks, but spider- web networks of fissures in our national armor, the failure to prevent and then quickly stop the spill has shaken many people’s faith in American might.

“We’re a superpower — the United States,” New Orleans chef and sometime fishing guide Eric Schutzman said recently as he took a break from carving up a batch of black drum and redfish caught in an unclosed section of Black Bay. “We put a man on the moon. You’d think we’d have enough brilliant minds to get it all cleaned up and get on with it.”

Since the Deepwater Horizon exploded on April 20 and sank 50 miles off the tip of Louisiana, as much as 184 million gallons of crude have hemorrhaged into the Gulf.

To get an idea of what Gulf Coast residents might be facing, many have looked back to the region’s last worst drilling accident, the 1979 Ixtoc spill. It took Pemex, Mexico’s state-owned oil company, 10 months to contain the spill. By then, 140 million gallons of crude had bled into the gulf.

Wes Tunnell, associate director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, is traveling the region, looking for traces of the spill and speaking to people who lived through it. His blog is plastered with photos of red mangrove roots clogged with thin, weathered tar mats — possibly from Ixtoc.

Mr. Tunnell and his colleagues interviewed 74-year-old Jose Chay, a longtime fisherman in Celestun, Yucatan. Mr. Chay told Mr. Tunnell that the spill forced locals to switch to jobs such as salt mining, crabbing in the lagoon or making charcoal from the region’s lush forests.

“They did these things for varying periods of time,” Mr. Tunnell writes, noting that some started back fishing in about two years, but with poor results. “Others got back to fishing in 4-5 years when things seemed to be back to usual for the fin fish but not shellfish.”

But, Mr. Chay told Mr. Tunnell, “It permanently killed all of the oysters and clams, the same thing we heard in Isla Arenas yesterday.”

Large sections of the U.S. Gulf Coast, which accounts for 60 percent to 70 percent of the oysters eaten in the United States, have been closed to harvesting. It remains to be seen what effect the spill will have on the fishery.

Some watermen have been pulling up gape-shelled, dead oysters. But that is likely a byproduct of the state’s efforts to keep the oil out of inland waters by diverting thousands of gallons of fresh water into the estuaries, says Mike Voisin, a member of the Louisiana Oyster Task Force.

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