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A Love-Hate History: Oil And Fishing In The Gulf

Anthony Chauvin, left, and his son, David, stand on the dock where, until recently, they unloaded shrimp for their family shrimp company in Chauvin, La. Since the oil spill, they have been using their family-owned boats to help clean up the oil with boom. (NPR)

The local fisherman feared their way of life was in jeopardy when the first oilmen arrived in Cajun south Louisiana. But over the last half century, the two industries learned to live together. Oil and gas brought jobs and opportunity for many families.

Now, with the offshore oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, some are asking the question: "At what cost?"

A Balancing Act

Second in an occasional series.

In the 1953 film Thunder Bay, Jimmy Stewart plays an oil prospector who comes to the Louisiana Bayou. He and his partner have a solution to the "offshore problem" -- a barge platform that can plumb the deep Gulf waters. A shrimper's daughter is wary: "They'll spoil everything they touch," she says. "Oil crews with their filthy men and their filthy money."

The old film underscores the decades-long balancing act in Louisiana to harvest its most valuable natural resources -- the sweet crude deep below the seafloor, and the fertile waters above, teeming with fish and shellfish.

Anthony Chauvin has always been a man to "drag nets in the Gulf." The retired shrimper and boat builder now helps his son, David Chauvin, run the Mariah Jade Shrimp Company in Chauvin, La. The family's roots are in the water.

"Grandpa Cap Chauvin, he was the first trawler. My daddy was the second, I'm the third, and David's the fourth, and his kids are the fifth generation," he says.

It's always been a family business. Cap Chauvin's five daughters made the nets their father and brother used to trawl shrimp.

Today, the Chauvins have hung up their nets. The outriggers on their boats instead pull boom through the Gulf of Mexico to catch spilled oil.

When The Oil Arrived

At 63, Chauvin is too young to remember when the first oil speculators came to Terrebonne Parish in the 1940s. But he remembers his grandfather Cap didn't like it one bit.

"When the oil company first came down here with the Cajuns, they didn't want the oil company," Chauvin says. "And they couldn't stop 'em."

Eventually, he says, the oil companies hired local people and paid them good money. So by the time Chauvin was fishing, the oil rigs were just as much a part of the Gulf seascape as the brown shrimp he was chasing.

"You know, we live with the oil companies down here, and we get along," he says. He even used to work in the offshore oilfields himself.

"At times, I've seen myself in the wintertime, fishing wasn't good when I was a young man. So we would go and work for the oil company. And then when the season would come back, we would go back fishing, you know."

Often, fishing took place around the oil rigs and platforms, he says, where you could find the most shrimp.

There's a replica of an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico exhibit at the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans. School-age children file past the giant saltwater tank where sea turtles, sting rays, sharks and schools of tarpon circle around the legs of the rig, which serve as an artificial reef. Some of the kids are surprised to see that the exhibit is sponsored by BP and a host of other oil companies.

The exhibit illustrates the intricate relationship between coastal Louisiana and the oil and gas industry, according to Mark Davis, director of the Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy at Tulane University Law School.

"Even here, we were essentially proudly telling people how integral not only is oil and gas to just the sea life in the Gulf and our way of life, but it's essentially become integrated in the entire ecology," Davis says. "The irony is almost overwhelming."

He says Louisiana's relationship with the oil and gas industry has been a dicey one, balancing the need to protect the nursery grounds that produce a bountiful Gulf with the need to industrialize a traditionally poor state.

Taming A Wild Coast

Dating back to early European settlers, Davis says, there's been a drive to tame and develop Louisiana's coast.

"Culturally, we viewed wetlands during much of that era as wasteland," Davis says, "and even though the people who lived in those regions knew the bounty that came from it, when somebody finally comes to you and says, 'How would you like to make four times more money than you've ever made in your life? How would you like to have a shot at a different future?' It's hard to say no. That looks like progress."

But Davis says the price of that progress wasn't acknowledged -- until now.

Louisiana's wetlands are disappearing at an alarming rate of 25 square miles a year. If that continues, an area the size of the state of Rhode Island will be under water by 2050.

Most scientists say oil and gas activity is responsible for about one-third of the state's total land loss.

Looking back, Chauvin has seen it happen in Terrebonne Parish.

"They came up in here and they dug bayous all over the place, cut across the marsh maybe a mile, two miles," he says. "And then at the end of that they'd come set a rig right there. So our marsh was cut open all over the place. That's how it disappeared."

The straight line cuts through the marsh are in stark contrast to the natural curves of the water weaving through stands of cord grass.

Big Promises, Low Returns

Chauvin says despite early wildcat promises of oil riches, families like his don't have much to show for it. They have oil rights "all over" the parish, but he says the checks he gets are "pennies on the dollar."

"Sometimes they send us a check -- it's almost laughable -- they send you a check: $10, $15, $20," he says.

He tells the story of an uncle who let the state build a levee behind his house near Lake Boudreaux. The 14 acres of land he had on the other side disappeared into the water.

"And then the rig came one day," Chauvin says. It was drilling where the uncle's land once was. When he protested, the state said it was part of the lake now.

"It's almost like they stole it from him," Chauvin says.

He wonders now what might have been different if the powers that be had listened to his grandfather 70 years ago.

"Five generations later, here we are," he says. "Are they going to have a sixth one? I really don't know. Is this place going to exist another 20 years from now down here? I really don't know."

This story was produced for broadcast by Evie Stone.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Transcript

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

When the first oil men arrived in Cajun south Louisiana, the local fisherman feared their way of life was in jeopardy. But over the last half century, the two industries learned to live together. Oil and gas brought jobs and opportunities for many families.

Now, with the offshore oil spill in the Gulf, some are asking the question, at what cost? NPR's Debbie Elliott has this story as part of our series, The Disappearing Coast.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: In the 1953 film "Thunder Bay," Jimmy Stewart, an oilman, comes to the Louisiana Bayou.

(Soundbite of movie, "Thunder Bay")

Mr. JIMMY STEWART (Actor): (as Steve Martin) Look down there. All you can see is water. But if you dream real hard, you can smell the oil. Can't you smell it?

ELLIOTT: He and his partner have a solution to the offshore problem a barge platform that can plumb the deep Gulf waters. A shrimper's daughter is wary.

(Soundbite of movie, "Thunder Bay")

Ms. JOANNE DRU (Actress): (As Stella Rigaud) They're buying the town. They'll spoil everything they touch. Oil crews with their filthy men and their filthy money.

ELLIOTT: The old film underscores the decades-long balancing act in Louisiana, to harvest its most valuable natural resources the sweet crude deep below the seafloor, and the fertile waters above, teeming with fish and shellfish.

Mr. ANTHONY CHAUVIN (Retired Shrimper, Boat Builder): I've always been a man to drag nets in the Gulf, you know.

ELLIOTT: Anthony Chauvin is a retired shrimper and boat builder, who now helps his son David run the Mariah Jade Shrimp Company in Chauvin, Louisiana. The family's roots are in the water.

Mr. CHAUVIN: Grandpa Cap Chauvin, he was the first trawler. My daddy was the second, I'm the third, and David's the fourth, and his kids are the fifth generation.

ELLIOTT: It's always been a family business, dating back to Grandpa Cap.

Mr. CHAUVIN: He had five daughters and five sons, and his daughters would make nets. They would actually take it and make the webbing, and they'd make enough webbing for him to make a net to go trawling with.

ELLIOTT: Today, the Chauvins have hung up their nets. The outriggers on their boats, instead, pull boom through the Gulf of Mexico to catch spilled oil.

At 63, Anthony Chauvin is too young to remember when the first oil speculators came to Terrebonne Parish in the 1940s, but he knows his grandfather Cap didn't like it one bit.

Mr. CHAUVIN: When the oil company first came down here with the Cajuns, they didn't want the oil company. I remember my grandpa talking about this. And they couldn't stop them, you see. So, eventually what ended up happening, a lot of the oil people that came down here, started hiring them and paying them good money and kind of cleaned it up. And then we buddies together, so that's basically how it went. But at the beginning it wasn't like that.

ELLIOTT: By the time Anthony Chauvin was fishing, the oil rigs were just as much a part of the Gulf seascape as the brown shrimp he was chasing.

Mr. CHAUVIN: You know, we live with the oil companies down here, and we get along. And a lot of our friends work with them. And I have worked in the oil field. At times, I've seen myself in the wintertime, fishing wasn't good when I was a young man, so we would go and work for the oil company. And then when the season would come back, we would go back fishing, you know.

ELLIOTT: Often, fishing around the oil platforms, he says, where you could find the most shrimp.

(Soundbite of children)

ELLIOTT: A visit to the Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans, helps illustrate the intricate relationship between coastal Louisiana and the oil and gas industry.

(Soundbite of children)

ELLIOTT: School-age children file past the Gulf of Mexico exhibit, some surprised to see that it's sponsored by BP and a host of other oil companies.

Mark Davis directs the Institute on Water Resources, Law and Policy at Tulane University. He says what's inside the giant saltwater tank is telling.

Mr. MARK DAVIS (Director, Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy, Tulane University): You have sea turtles, you have rays, you have tarpon, all sorts of wonderful looking things. And you also have what appear to be the legs of an oil rig, because oil rigs, like any hard structure in the Gulf, attracts sea life. So, essentially becomes the basis for a reef.

So, even here, we were essentially proudly telling people how integral, not only is oil and gas to just the sea life in the Gulf and our way of life, but it's essentially become integrated in the entire ecology.

ELLIOTT: When you look at this exhibit now and you think about what's happening in the Gulf, what's goes through your mind?

Mr. DAVIS: Well, the irony is almost overwhelming. I think it's a story that's fair to tell, but it's an incomplete story. It's suggests that this is a benign relationship and it's always been a very, very dicey relationship.

ELLIOTT: Dicey, because of the tradeoff between protecting the nursery grounds that produce a bountiful Gulf, and the need to industrialize a traditionally poor state. Dating back to early European settlers, Davis says, there's been a drive to tame and develop Louisiana's coast.

Mr. DAVIS: Culturally, we viewed wetlands, during much of that era, as wasteland. And even though the people who lived in those regions knew the bounty that came from it, when somebody finally comes to you and says, how would you like to make four times more money than you've ever made in your life; how would you like to have a shot at a different future, it's hard to say no. That looks like progress, and in part, it was. But it was progress with a price that wasn't actually acknowledged.

ELLIOTT: Until now. Louisiana's wetlands are disappearing at an alarming rate -25 square miles a year. If that continues, an area the size of the state of Rhode Island will be under water by 2050. And most scientists say oil and gas activity is responsible for about one-third of the state's total land loss.

Looking back, Anthony Chauvin has seen it happen in Terrebonne Parish.

Mr. CHAUVIN: They came up in here and they dug bayous all over the place, cut across the marsh, maybe a mile, two miles. And then at the end of that, they'd come set a rig right there. So our marsh was cut open all over the place. That's how it disappeared.

ELLIOTT: The straight line cuts through the marsh are in stark contrast to the natural curves of the water, weaving through stands of cord grass.

Chauvin says despite early wildcat promises of oil riches, families like his don't have much to show for it. He tells the story of an uncle who let the state build a levy behind his house.

Mr. CHAUVIN: Right next to Lake Boudreaux, right here. So, he's got these 14 acres of land on the other side over there, and he watch it just disappear. It went under water. And then a rig came one day. The rig came in the back over there, and that's where his land was at. And he went talked to somebody, says, well, it's part of the lake now. It's almost like they stole it from him, you know what I'm saying? It's your land, but now the water took it, it belong to the state.

ELLIOTT: Chauvin wonders now, what might've been different had the powers that be listened to his grandfather 70 years ago.

Mr. CHAUVIN: Five generations later, here we are. Are they going to have a sixth one? I really don't know. Is this place going to exist another 20 years from now down here? I really don't know.

ELLIOTT: Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

KELLY: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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