12:01am

Wed April 20, 2011
The BP Oil Spill, One Year Later

After Oil Spill, Shrimpers Hope For Blessed Season

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 9:59 am

To mark the one-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon rig spill, NPR revisits a Cajun family living on the fragile edge of Louisiana. Last spring, the Chauvins, who have made shrimping their livelihood for five generations, made a tough decision to help BP clean up the oil spill.

This past year has taken its toll on Kim and David Chauvin and their family's shrimping business. But earlier this month, they prepared for a brand new shrimp season.

Their community's annual Blessing of the Fleet is the traditional launch of shrimp season, when boats parade down the bayou and are blessed with a sprinkling of holy water.

The day before the ceremony, Kim Chauvin is in her kitchen, unfurling a huge banner that will go high atop the family's boat. She says the slogan on the banner — "Together we shall overcome" — wasn't the first thing that came to her mind.

"I really was going to do 'Nightmare on BP Street,' " she says. But she says if they are seen losing hope, it would send the wrong message to the dozens of other shrimpers in their namesake Chauvin, La. Many of them unload their catch on the dock behind Kim and David Chauvin's house on Bayou Lil Caillou.

The future is so uncertain after the oil spill, the local Catholic priest almost canceled this year's blessing.

Kim Chauvin says they are all tired but need to come together now more than ever, hence the slogan on the banner.

"With Jesus in the clouds looking over the boat as it's trawling," Chauvin says, "this is totally like believing in God and trawling. Because you have to have faith you're going to go out there and catch something."

Responding To The Spill

At the ceremony, dozens of boats of all sizes line the Bayou, all adorned with colorful flags and decorations. The monsignor blessing the boats is riding on a vessel decked out in black and gold, the colors of the NFL's New Orleans Saints. People dressed as green swamp monsters ride on another.

There are also visual reminders of what the small town has endured, like a poster on the Chauvin's boat of former BP executive Tony Hayward in his yacht asking for his life back.

The people in Chauvin, La., want their livelihoods back.

David Chauvin is in the captain's chair on the 73-foot shrimp trawler, the Mariah Jade, named after his daughter. He says most of the boats out on the bayou were built by the men running them, just like him.

"I built this one 14 years ago," he says. "And when I say built, I mean built from scratch, from the first piece of 1-inch-by-6-inch, the keel."

It was also one of the first boats to respond to the BP oil spill.

"I can still remember the phone call," he says. "It was almost a year ago today."

A contractor for BP was on the line, wanting Chauvin to assemble a fleet of large shrimp boats to clean up oil. But at the time, news reports indicated no oil had spilled.

"That was my first question to him — I said, 'What oil?' He says, 'The riser pipe is disconnected from the drilling ship.' He says, 'The blowout preventer has failed.' And he says, 'This is going to be bad,' " Chauvin recalls.

Chauvin agreed to help, pulling together what was dubbed Task Force One — local fisherman in a grueling battle to capture the oil that was gushing unchecked into their shrimping grounds. They worked from April through September.

His nephew, Chance McCorkel, 25, captained one of Chauvin's boats for the cleanup, what he calls their "missions."

"I don't miss it," McCorkel says. "The oil itself was gross. It stunk, got all over everything. It was hard to not let it get all over us. It was thick."

The trawlers traded their shrimp nets for giant absorbent boom they would pull along the Gulf to soak up the oil.

"Easiest way to explain this is it looked like giant tampons strung out for about a hundred foot," he says.

He calls it a surreal experience.

"It was just weird to be riding around, no nets on your boats, no ropes on your boats," he says. "You constantly hear noise. It was just too quiet. All you heard was your engine and your radios. Don't feel right."

A Long Winter

The ropes and chains and nets are back on the Mariah Jade, and she has a fresh coat of paint like most of the boats David Chauvin sees along the bayou.

"Everybody's out today," Chauvin says. "It's been a long winter."

If they're not riding on the boats, people are lined on the banks waving at the passing parade of vessels. Chauvin says the community needs this relief.

"This has been, probably by far, in all the years I've been fishing, the most stressful year of my life," Chauvin says. "It's a fact that you have to live with when you are a commercial fisherman — the uncertainty — but we've never seen where you couldn't go to work."

Most of the Gulf is back open for fishing, and word is the white shrimp crop is going to be a good one. But just in case, the Chauvins' pastor, Jeff Loyd, seeks higher intervention.

"Lord, we pray for the shrimp harvest this year, heavenly father," Loyd prays, "that you make the harvest plentiful, heavenly father, and the price for the shrimp right, heavenly father. May the fuel be the right cost this year, heavenly father."

Family and friends gathered on the Mariah Jade shout a collective "Amen!" and cheer.

Looking Ahead

The Chauvins have a lot riding on this new season. BP has not paid them for last year's losses or for the damage to their fleet from working the spill. Kim Chauvin says it's so unfair.

"We got out there and worked our butts off to mitigate BP's damages," she says.

For the first time in years, she has had to borrow money to get back in business, and they're trying to sell one of their three large vessels.

"It's a scary thing when you're looking at your future and you don't have a clue and you don't have a grasp on it," she says. "You're walking in blind, and you're about to spend money that you don't have in a way of continuing on with the business, because this is what we've done all our lives."

That's the Chauvin way — and why she says they could not have canceled this year's Blessing of the Fleet.

"We need to stand up where our heritage is and really give something for our kids to look forward to," she says.

No matter how hard the last year has been, Kim Chauvin says she has a responsibility to show her grandchildren that there is hope beyond tragedy.

This piece was produced for broadcast by Evie Stone.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

And I'm Mary Louise Kelly in for Steve Inskeep.

A year ago today, the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers and unleashing the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

NPR has been looking at the effects of the spill in our series "The Disappearing Coast." To mark the anniversary of the disaster today, we revisit a Cajun family in Louisiana.

Last spring, fifth generation shrimper David Chauvin, Jr. described the decision to go to work for BP, cleaning up the oil.

Mr. DAVID CHAUVIN, JR. (Shrimper): It was either go shrimping or go save our coastline.

KELLY: The Chauvins recount the toll of the past year with NPR's Debbie Elliott.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Kim Chauvin is a woman in constant motion. When we first met her last spring, she was rushing around getting safety gear for the cleanup. A year later, she's getting ready for a new shrimp season.

(Soundbite of banging)

ELLIOTT: She unfurls a huge banner on her kitchen floor. It's for the community's annual blessing of the fleet and will go high atop the family's boat.

Ms. KIM CHAUVIN: I really was going to do "Nightmare on BP Street," but I was told that too many people look up to us in the community and if we are seen losing hope...

ELLIOTT: It would send the wrong message to the dozens of other shrimpers in their namesake, Chauvin, Louisiana.

Many of them unload their catch here on the dock behind Kim and David Chauvin's house on Bayou Little Caillou. The future is so uncertain after the oil spill, the local Catholic priest almost cancelled this year's blessing - the traditional launch of shrimp season when boats parade down the bayou and are blessed with a sprinkling of holy water.

Kim Chauvin says they are all tired, but need to come together now more than ever. And that's the message printed on her banner - Together We Shall Overcome.

Ms. CHAUVIN: With, you know, Jesus in the clouds looking over the boat as it's trawling. This is totally like believing in God and trawling. Because you have to have faith you going to go out there and catch something.

(Soundbite of people cheering)

ELLIOTT: Dozens of boats of all sizes line the bayou, all adorned with colorful flags and decorations. The monsignor blessing the boats is riding on a Who Dat vessel decked out in the Saint's black and gold. Green swamp monsters are riding on another. There are also visual reminders of what the small town has endured like a poster on the Chauvin's boat of former BP executive Tony Hayward in his yacht asking for his life back. The people in Chauvin, Louisiana want their livelihoods back.

(Soundbite of boat)

ELLIOTT: David Chauvin is in the captain's chair on the 73-foot shrimp trawler, the Mariah Jade, named after his daughter.

Mr. DAVID CHAUVIN (Shrimper): Most of the boats that you see down on this bayou, these vessels were constructed by the men that run them. This particular vessel right here, I built this one 14 years ago. And when I say built, I mean built from scratch, from the first piece of one-inch by six-inch, the keel.

ELLIOTT: It was also one of the first boats to respond to the BP oil spill.

Mr. CHAUVIN: I can still remember the phone call. It was almost a year ago today.

ELLIOTT: A contractor for BP was on the line wanting Chauvin to assemble a fleet of large shrimp boats to clean up oil.

Mr. CHAUVIN: Well, I had watched the news that morning, and as far as the reports they were giving at the time, everything was okay. There was no oil spilled. So that was my first question to him. I said, what oil? He says, the riser pipe is disconnected from the drilling ship. He says the blowout preventer has failed. And he says this is going to be bad.

ELLIOTT: Chauvin agreed to help, pulling together what was dubbed Task Force One - local fisherman in a grueling battle to capture the oil that was gushing unchecked into their shrimping grounds. They worked from April through September.

His 25-year-old nephew, Chance McCorkel, captained one of the Chauvin's boats for the cleanup, what he calls their mission.

Mr. CHANCE MCCORKEL: I don't miss it. The oil itself was gross. It stunk. Got all over everything and it was just it was hard to not let it get all over me. It was thick.

ELLIOTT: The trawlers traded their shrimp nets for a giant absorbent boom they would pull along the Gulf to soak up oil.

Mr. MCCORKEL: Easiest way to explain this it is looked like giant tampons strung out for about a hundred foot.

ELLIOTT: McCorkel calls it a surreal experience.

Mr. MCCORKEL: It was just weird to be riding around, no nets on your boats, no ropes on your boats, you(ph) just say, it just don't feel the same and you constantly hear noise and it was just too quiet. All you heard was your engine and your radios, like, no, don't feel right.

(Soundbite of radio dispatch)

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible)

ELLIOTT: The ropes and chains and nets are back on the Mariah Jade today and she's got a fresh coat of paint like most of the boats David Chauvin sees along the bayou.

Mr. CHAUVIN: Everybody's out today. It's been a long winter.

ELLIOTT: If they're not riding on the boats, people are lined up on the banks waving at the passing parade of vessels. Chauvin says people here need this relief.

Mr. CHAUVIN: This has been probably by far, in all the years I've been fishing, the most stressful year of my life. We've always lived with -and that's the type that you have to live with when you are a commercial fisherman - the uncertainty. But we've never we've never seen where we couldn't go to work.

ELLIOTT: Most of the Gulf is back open for fishing today, and word is the white shrimp crop is going to be a good one. But just in case, the Chauvin's pastor, Jeff Loyd, seeks higher intervention.

Pastor JEFF LOYD: Lord, we pray for the shrimp harvest this year, heavenly father, that you make the harvest plentiful, heavenly father, and the price for the shrimp right, heavenly father. May the fuel be the right cost this year, heavenly father. In Jesus Christ's name I pray.

Unidentified People: Amen.

(Soundbite of applause)

ELLIOTT: The Chauvins have a lot riding on this new season. BP has not paid them for last year's losses or the damage to their fleet from working the spill. Kim Chauvin says it's so unfair.

Ms. CHAUVIN: We got out there and worked out butts off to mitigate BP's damages. That's exactly what we did.

ELLIOTT: For the first time in years, she's had to borrow money to get back in business, and they're trying to sell one of their three large vessels.

Ms. CHAUVIN: It's a scary thing when you're looking at your future and you have no clue and you don't have a grasp on it. You're walking in blind. And you're about to spend money that you don't have in a way of continuing on with the business. 'Cause this is what we've done all our lives.

ELLIOTT: That's the Chauvin way and why, she says, they could not have cancelled this year's blessing of the fleet.

Ms. CHAUVIN: We need to stand up where our heritage is and really give something for our kids to look forward to.

ELLIOTT: No matter how hard the last year has been, Kim Chauvin says she has a responsibility to show her grandchildren that there is hope beyond tragedy.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

KELLY: And you can see the Chauvin blessing of the fleet at NPR.org.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And as we just heard, shrimpers in Louisiana are expecting a good year. The season even opened early, beginning this past Monday, because there's an abundance of shrimp. The outlook for Gulf Coast oysters is not so bright. After last year's oil spill, Louisiana opened the levee gates along the Mississippi River to release millions of gallons of freshwater into the wetlands.

KELLY: The hope was that the surge of freshwater would keep oil out of the marshes, but too much freshwater is bad for the shellfish and it decimated the oyster beds. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has put the 2010 oyster harvest at half of what it was in 2009 and it could take several years for the population to rebound.

MONTAGNE: Oysters are back on the menus in many Louisiana restaurants, though prices have gone up. In fact, the price of almost all seafood is up. Some of that increase is from the effects of last year's oil spill, though it also seems to be part of a national trend of rising food prices. And the food prices are going up, at least in part, because of the rising cost of oil. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.