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In one Gulf Coast town, disaster disrupts delicate harmony between fishing and oil

By Marc Kaufman

Venice, La., is not an easy place to make sense of.

On one side, you have two picturesque marinas with fleets of high-end boats that rightly claim to be the entryway to some of the world's best fishing. Saltwater Sportsman Magazine named it one of the 20 best fishing desinations in the world back in 2005, and its bayous and marshes are blessed with glorious sunsets.

Then within a stone's throw of the two marinas you pass by acres of land used by the oil and gas drilling industry - some of the space is alive with cranes moving material, some of it is filled with rusted, twisted junk. There are tank farms, a scrap metal yard and - right next to the water - a giant landfill.

Acres of what were once forests of cypress are now drowned in brackish water, with a few trees still alive and many trunks standing bare. Hurricane Katrina played its role in the drownings, but so did the relentless push to control, fill in and channel waterways for the use of people. Denied its chosen path, water will, of course, find another.

It's hardly unusual for people to enter into Faustian bargains with their surroundings - using and abusing the land and its resources to create wealth and comfort, while turning a blind eye to the cost. The glorious setting of Venice just makes that bargain more obvious and extreme.

And for decades it has largely worked. Cypress Cove Marina owner Rene Cross said the fishermen and oilmen always got along well. The oil companies made sure marinas and boat owners got some of the action taking crews out to the rigs, while sports fishermen learned that the best fishing was often found around the artificial "reefs" created by the pylons of the offshore rigs.

Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser told me that many families in the parish make money from both oil and fishing; that oil work brings in good and steady income, and fishing brings in sometimes good and sometimes bad money. "They co-exist in our families, but you have to assume there's more than the usual amount of friction right now," he said.

But the bill from that Faustian bargain may well be coming due. Oil from the Deepwater Horizon is alarmingly close to Venice, the commercial shrimpers, oystermen and fishermen are already grounded, and many locals seem convinced that it's only time and some bad weather before it hits the marshes for real and then the bayous.

The Venice marinas are still picturesque, but they're empty of visiting fishermen and things may well get worse - much worse - before they ever get better. And when they do get better, there may be one Venice and not two.


Mike Shepard

 |  May 10, 2010; 9:00 PM ET Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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