Trouble in the Gulf

When Louisiana fishing guides talk about fishing off the coast they sometimes talk about fishing “the rigs.” They mean the oil drilling rigs and platforms that dot the seafood rich and environmentally fragile coastal waters.

I am an occasional visitor to the Louisiana delta and have always found the fishing, the food and the folks equally wonderful. But the relationship between fishermen and oil men seems to be one forged from a standpoint of tolerated necessity.

When fishing off shore I am a stranger in a strange land. But when I’m fishing within the shadow of one of the rigs, like the one pictured, I am often visited by a recurring thought: What happens when this thing springs a leak? Technology, after all, is not infallible, although we tend to think it is.

I’ve sometimes posed this question to my guide. Their response is usually unprintable.

The Mississippi River delta and surrounding marshlands form  a wondrously complex environment that teems with wildlife. Shrimp, oyster beds and miles of fish rich waters are the order of the day. Add to this countless birds and other wildlife and the delta is unlike any other place I know. The epicenter of this natural wonderland is Venice, La., where, for many, fishing is not a way of life. It is life.

The off shore rigs do more than attract fish, of course. They are technological marvels; or monsters, depending on one’s point of view. They are floating miniature cities; towering, multi story, high-tech, structures that house dozens of workers and allow oil men to reach a mile or more through the sea and into the seabed to extract its riches.

Death and disaster struck last week then a rig exploded about 40 miles off the Louisiana coast. Eleven of the more than 100 men who were living and working aboard the rig were unaccounted for and are assumed to have died in the blast, which left the rig in flames. It sank two days later.

The explosion was 10 days ago and as bad as that was, the long-term disaster is still unfolding. The well head – nearly a mile below the surface – is spewing oil. The discharge estimates are astounding: 210,000 gallons of oil a day pouring into the sea, with no quick way to turn it off. The first strands of oil have reached the South Pass. High tides and storms are in the forecast. Coastal waters of Mississippi and Alabama are at risk. The Florida panhandle is not beyond danger. An ecological disaster is on the horizon.

President Obama has marshaled federal help but the task at hand seems overwhelming. It may take a couple of months just to stop the leak and an influx of 210,000 gallons of per day anything – and especially oil – is not good for the ocean or anything that lives in it or near it.

There is growing concern, which I share, that the trouble in the Gulf could ultimately make the 1989, 11 million gallon Exxon Valdez disaster seem tame by comparison.

Learn more from an expert at www.fieldandstream.com, (The Conservationist blog) where conservation specialist Bob Marshall is reporting on the disaster. Marshall is a livelong resident of the region. He knows the culture. Knows the people and knows environmental trouble when he sees it.

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