CHALMETTE, LA — As Ray Brandhurst puts the final touches on his shrimp boat to bring it back to its pre-Katrina condition, an oil spill the size of Delaware threatens the seafood upon which he depends.

“It’s one thing to rebuild buildings, boats. We’re capable of that. But we can’t do anything about this,” says Brandhurst, whose four-bedroom home, wholesale fish shop, and hand-built boat were all casualties of the 2005 hurricane. “The spill’s putting our resource and our wonderful estuaries here in jeopardy.”

Brandhurst loves to shrimp. He bought his first shrimp boat when he was a mere fifteen, joining a long family tradition of shrimping stretching as far as the 18th century. With a lifetime of experience under his belt, he artfully relies on “a million variables” to find the best shrimp in the Gulf.

But the ongoing “oilpocalypse” off the coast of Louisiana brings a new variable to Brandhurst’s equation.

“There’s a lot of unknowns,” he says. “Fortunately, so far it’s only affected our offshore waters, our inshore waters haven’t been impacted yet. What they thought was going to happen hasn’t happened yet, but it’s a scary situation.”

In an “unprecedented” move, local authorities opened up the shrimp season a few weeks early so shimpers could gather what they could before the oil tainted their waters. “The areas that stand to be impacted the most are the ones where we work,” explains Brandhurst, who says the opening is “extremely early.”

Shrimpers will be able to snatch up the more mature white shrimp in the Gulf, but younger shrimp will be thrown back, or they may be too small to be caught in the nets. “The mature shrimp will move away from the oil,” says Brandhurst, noting that the little ones are less capable and more at risk.

All of the waters directly affected by the spill remained closed to commercial and recreational fishing, so no seafood from the region is at risk of oil contamination.

It is almost certain, however, that the life cycle of shrimp in the Gulf will be affected by the spill. Shrimp reproduce and lay their eggs in the Gulf, which is now largely covered in dispersed and floating oil, and then move inshore to the estuaries, which are are also at risk.

“We could be ruining part of the life cycle,” says Brandhurst, who is well-versed in the ecological ins and outs of his trade.

Hurricane Katrina–though devastating in many ways–was actually good for the shrimp population, explains Brandhurst.

gateway-louisiana-featured.jpg“The thing about Katrina is that it actually helped the resource. When the storm came ashore it pushed the shrimp into the area where they go ashore. It stirred up the bottom and brought the nutrients up, providing a lot more nutrients (and oxidating the water), making the conditions prime for their survival,” says Brandhurst. “We experienced catches of unforeseen magnitude after Katrina. That was our blessing.”

This oily disaster, on the other hand, threatens to devastate sea life (and, by extension, the seafood industry) in a way most cannot estimate.

“The sad thing for me… these geological conditions we have in this state, these estuaries we have here, they are so unique and so productive,” says Brandhurst. “These estuaries, per sqaure inch, support more life than the richest farmland in this country or the densest rain forest in the world.”

If the oil continues to flow into the Gulf, and Ray Brandhurst isn’t able to shrimp, he’s not sure what he’ll do.

“I’ve got fifty scenarios running through my head. What am I going to do? I don’t have the answers because I don’t know what’s going to happen. How big is this going to get? It’s scary, it’s very scary.”

“Fishermen are very resilient,” he says. “But our hands are tied here. The only thing we can hope for is that some areas are left unaffected, so we can work.”

Photos by Helena Bottemiller. Pictured: Ray Brandhurst’s shrimp boat, “Four Winds,” named for his four children, all born in different seasons. and the sign marking Venice, the southernmost point in Louisiana.


See recent Food Safety News coverage of the Gulf oil spill:

Residents React to Turtle, Baitfish Deaths May 7, 2010

Oil Spill Science: Carcinogens in the Food Chain May 6, 2010

As Oil Spills, Locals Buy Up Seafood May 5, 2010

Contaminated Shrimp Will Not Be Processed, May 5, 2010

Gulf Seafood in Commerce Safe to Eat May 4, 2010

No ‘Safe Harbor’ for Seafood Processors May 4, 2010

There’s O’l In the Ocean May 3, 2010

NOAA Closes Oil Spill Area to Fishing May 3, 2010