Michael McCarthy: Little boats of Louisiana come to the rescue

Oil may have decimated the fishing grounds of the Mississippi but the locals are still hard at work

Share
Related Topics

All along the bayou, the canal-like waterway that runs for 15 miles beside the road from Chauvin to Cocodrie, the shrimp boats are tied up; with their twin side nets raised vertically, high in the air, they remind you of soldiers surrendering. And they've certainly given up the ghost for the time being.

Right across the Gulf of Mexico, shrimping has come to a halt – thanks to the BP oil spill and its pollution danger – right in the middle of its most profitable season. "My best catch?" says Captain Tate Grossie, "I tell you, I took 11,000lb of shrimp in three-and-a-half days. Filled my hold. Sold it for $20,000. Best day, on my first drag I took 950lb of shrimp. Major part of my income. So," he says, looking out over the marshes, "if I didn't have this, I wouldn't have nuthin'."

"This" being "a vessel of opportunity". BP, fiercely criticised over the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon spill, has gone some way towards mending relations with the people of the Gulf coast – or at least, not damaging them any further – by promptly paying out compensation for loss of earnings to thousands of landbound shrimpers, crabbers and other fishermen, and furthermore, by offering them employment on top of that, doing what they do best: working on the water.

Those who have boats that are suitable for helping in the oil clean-up and coastal protection operations – and by no means everyone does – are invited to offer them as vessels of opportunity, meaning small craft which BP and its contractors will put to use, as and when.

Captain Tate (or as I start to think of him, Cap'*Tate), who is 44 and had been a fisherman all his working life, has no chance of that with his main boat, his pride and joy, the 53ft wooden shrimper Miss Savannah. She's too big for the clean-up operation's needs, and is consequently now moored in the port of West St Mary with her nets reaching for the sky. But he has something else up the sleeve of his captain's sports-shirt: his airboats.

Airboats, in case you don't know, are metal platforms with a large propeller at the back. They are pug-ugly and louder than helicopters but have indisputable advantages: on calm water they can reach 75mph, and they possess such a shallow draught that they can cruise over any inlet, and then move seamlessly on to low-lying land such as marshes.

An abomination, in fact, for an environmentalist or indeed anyone who loves wilderness for its peace and quiet. But in the great upheaval which is the oil spill, threatening the whole Gulf coastline, airboats which can go anywhere quickly are ideal for the sensitive and finicky work of defending the marshlands of coastal Louisiana, and as Tate Grossie had three of them as a sideline to his shrimping, he was asked to help.

He is operating out of the remote harbour of Cocodrie, 85 miles south-west of New Orleans, which for oil spill purposes is Forward Operating Base Cocodrie, and it gives you some idea of the enormous scale of the oil defence and clean-up operation to realise that there are 17 such FOB's along the Gulf coast from Louisiana, through Mississippi and Alabama to Florida, and between them they are sending out 2,600 vessels of opportunity every day.

I hitched a ride on Cap'*Tate's airboat as he took Petty-Officer John Miller, US Coast Guard, out to inspect the clean-up operation. Petty-Officer Miller seems at first an archetypal member of the military, given to frequent grunts of "yessuh" and "nossuh". But then I discover that he too, in this great upheaval, is not what he seems; he is actually a reservist who has been recalled to the colours, and in civilian life is a Professor of Early American Literature, and if you give him half a chance he will switch out of grunt mode and murmur: "Of course, Emerson was attempting to establish an indigenous American tradition, but he was greatly indebted to European Romantics such as Coleridge and Schiller."

Sunscreened, sunhatted, earmuffed and water-stocked – it was 93F in the shade and the sun was pitiless – we cruised out of Cocodrie's marina into the truly lovely seascape of flat water and small barrier islands which make up the borders of the Mississippi river delta; then we picked up speed. Having had a Catholic upbringing I am used to guilt, but I was unprepared for the massive guilt cloud which enveloped me when I realised that riding in an airboat, which represents everything I cannot stand, was as exhilarating as skiing.

It took about half an hour to reach the clean-up operation. Our corner of the marshes had been spared the heavy oil which had hit further west, yet there were areas which had been contaminated – or nearly so. The marshes and the low-lying barrier islands had been saved by the defensive booms which had been put in place, both the hard protective booms and the softer white absorbent booms which soak up the oil, and all around the horizon, small craft, the vessels of opportunity, were adjusting them and checking them – some were airboats and others, Cap'*Tate pointed out, were shallow-draughted crabbers.

The booms had restricted the oil to about the first 5ft of marsh grass, which was itself repeatedly being cleaned. Most of the landscape remained pristine.

Watching it all going on, I asked Tate how he felt about BP and he said he wasn't angry. "It just happened, it was just one of those things," he said. Like many local fishermen, he had been paid a $5,000 cheque last month for loss of earnings. There had been no hitches in arranging it; it was settled over the phone and arrived promptly. He was waiting to see what happened this month. By the start of this week, BP had paid out 18,000 individual cheques totalling nearly $49m.

Then it was time to head back to Cocodrie. I said to Petty-Officer Miller that they seemed to be making quite a good job of the clean up operation and he said: "Yessuh."

And I said that it didn't seem too bad in this part of the marshes, and he said: "Nossuh." And then he couldn't help himself and slipped out of grunt mode for a second and back into Professorial and blurted out: "You might say it's a small success story, in its own way."

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Mortgage Advisor - OTE £95,000

£40000 - £95000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Vehicle Inspectors / Purchasers

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Trainee Vehicle Inspectors / Pu...

Recruitment Genius: Vehicle Broker / Purchaser

£18000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £45,000

£18000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive is required t...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The possibility of Corbyn winning has excited some Conservatives  

Labour leadership: The choice at the heart of the leadership campaign

Jeremy Corbyn
Pablo Iglesias, the leader of Spain’s anti-austerity party Podemos  

Greece debt crisis: Trouble is, if you help the Greeks, everyone will want the same favours

Charlotte McDonald-Gibson Charlotte McDonald-Gibson
Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

How to find gold

Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

Not born in the USA

Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
10 best balsamic vinegars

10 best balsamic vinegars

Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'