- Associated Press - Thursday, May 24, 2012

LAFITTE, La. — Gloom infects the hard-working shrimp and crab docks of this gritty fishing town as the second full year of fishing since BP’s catastrophic oil spill kicks into high gear.

Usually folks are upbeat and busy in May, when shrimpers get back to work in Louisiana’s rich waters. This spring, though, catches are down, docks are idle and anxiety is growing that the ill effects of the massive BP oil spill may be far from over.

An Associated Press examination of catch data from last year’s commercial harvest along the Gulf the first full year of fishing since the 2010 spill reveals merit in the fishermen’s complaints. According to the analysis of figures obtained through public-records requests, seafood crops hit rock bottom in the Barataria estuary, the same place where some of the thickest waves of oil washed in when a BP well exploded in the Gulf of Mexico.

Detailed data from “trip tickets” fishermen fill out when they unload at docks reveal steep drops in Barataria, though it’s far from bleak everywhere along the Gulf Coast. Fishermen are making money that is essentially equal to what they earned before the spill, according to the 2011 data not officially released yet by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Part of the reason is that, though the fishermen aren’t hauling in as much, prices are up, so people are paying more for seafood from the Gulf than other sources.

In Barataria, the number of shrimpers in the water has remained steady, yet the fall season was off by about 7 million pounds from an average of 18.1 million pounds between 2006 and 2009. It wasn’t a pretty picture for blue crabs either in Barataria: The crab catch was off by 2.7 million pounds from an average of 9.5 million pounds between 2006 and 2009, the data showed.

Fresh water from a historically high Mississippi River could have been the culprit for some of the drop off in productivity, marine experts said. Another factor may be that some areas in the estuary were closed owing to oil contamination. One such place is Bay Jimmy, where oil is still gooey and thick on the shores.

Fishermen blame the spill. In Lafitte, they said the new shrimp season was off to a slow start.

“I’m afraid that oil spill has ruined us,” said Ken Lee, a shrimp dock owner. “We’re hardly unloading any brown shrimp at all.”

For now though, a range of government officials, scientists and seafood experts say it’s much too early to make any definite link between the oil spill and one-year declines in catches. Seafood harvests, while generally predictable, are subject to fluctuations even in the best of times.

But Mr. Lee shook his head as he looked over a sheet tallying recent shrimp loads in the past few days. It was slim pickings. Moments before, an 18-wheeler pulled away from his dock with just seven vats of frozen fresh shrimp. The truck has room for more than 40, he said.

“That’s pitiful,” he said. “We usually load a truck full.”

But while catches were off, prices for now are high. The Louisiana data shows fishermen actually made as much or more in 2011 than they had in previous years. The total values of the blue crab and oyster harvests were higher than the six-year average.

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