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Oil spill in Terrebonne Bay on opening day of shrimp season causes grief for fishermen

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John Sophin
Oil floats on the surface of waters near Lake Barre beside a shrimp boat operated by John Sophin on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022.

This story was originally published by the Houma Courier and Thibodaux Daily Comet newspapers.

A Terrebonne Bay oil spill on the first day of Louisiana’s inshore shrimp season has taken a toll on some local fishermen, who say they received no warning of the incident until many hours after it occurred and as a result ended up with fouled nets and oiled boats.

Twelve years after the BP oil spill crippled Louisiana’s seafood industry, interviews with state officials, dock owners and fishermen indicate that a protocol for notifying members of the shrimp industry in a timely manner is not in place.

The Coast Guard said it was notified through the National Response Center at 3:01 a.m. Monday that a tank platform collapsed at the Hilcorp Caillou Island facility in Terrebonne Bay.

As of Wednesday morning, the Coast Guard reported that 6,200 feet of containment boom was being deployed. Hilcorp estimated that less than 14,000 gallons of crude had entered the water.

U.S. Coast Guard
An oil tank platform collapsed at the Hilcorp Caillou Island facility in Terrebonne Bay on Monday.

The reported amount was relatively small – a little more than the oil contained in two tanker trucks – but currents and tides carried the surface sheen to areas where boats were anchored or in the process of pulling nets to catch shrimp. Some shrimpers said they were not aware that oil had fouled their nets or parts of their catch until daylight Tuesday or later.

The Louisiana inshore fall shrimp season opened at 6 p.m. Monday.

“I went out on the opening and I kept pushing all that night,” said Terrebonne Parish shrimper John Sophin. “I didn’t know about the spill, nobody warned me, I didn’t know where it was at.”

After hauling his nets all night, Sophin anchored his boat, the 46-foot Randong, near Lake Barre.

“I seen the oil floating on my boat,” Sophin said. “I got the oil in my nets.”

Chauvin shrimper Robert Keenan said he smelled oil while pulling his nets in Timbalier Bay in pre-dawn darkness Tuesday. But the smell is not unusual in local waters, he said, particularly when many boats are gathered for shrimping as they were that day.

He later saw an email from the Louisiana Shrimp Association warning of the spill but with no specific location. He chose to return to shore. A thorough check of his catch at a dock indicated some oil contamination, so his shrimp were rejected.

“I had to throw it all overboard,” he said.

Patrick Banks, assistant secretary for fisheries with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, said he was notified Monday afternoon – a good 12 hours after the spill was first reported – not through official sources but from a conversation with a member of the fishing community.

During that conversation and others, Banks saw that there was a notification gap for fishermen as well as his own agency.

“For all of our people fishing out there, this is important,” Banks said. “That’s a conversation we need to have with the industry and the state agencies who are the first ones notified.”

Fishermen, dock owners and state officials acknowledge that there is no effective way for individual fishermen to be notified of future oil spill issues. But in the 21st century’s information age, there are various networks through which most receive communications.

The Louisiana Shrimp Association, an organization comprised of fishermen, posted a Facebook advisory about the spill Monday night and prior to that sent emails to its members.

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Tracy Trahan
Trace Parfait looks at oil on the nets of the shrimp boat Corey Elena, owned by his cousin, Carl Parfait Jr., near Lake Barre, a few miles east of Cocodrie, on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022.

The group’s president, Acy Cooper, is also chairman of the Louisiana Shrimp Task Force, which makes recommendations to the state on behalf of the industry.

“We weren’t notified until 3 or 4 o’clock,” Cooper said. “There is no system. It will be on the agenda for the next Task Force meeting for sure.”

Kimberly Chauvin, co-owner of the David Chauvin Shrimp Company in Dulac, said she and other dock owners are doing their best to closely test and inspect the shrimp they are buying. But she acknowledges that the precautions are not foolproof and that kinks in the information chain present challenges for both fishermen and dock owners. She wants to see the problem fixed.

“Fishermen are now confused on whether they should be taking a chance of going out to shrimp,” she said. “Do you spend the money for supplies to get rejected at the dock for the sale of your shrimp? And docks are worried that if we buy the shrimp, are we going to get paid by the processors or will they reject the shrimp? This is a no-win situation for us. Once we pay a fisherman, we don’t get that money back. You just take a loss.”

State officials said testing of shrimp in areas that may be affected by the spill will begin as soon as Thursday, coordinated between Wildlife and Fisheries and the Louisiana Department of Health.

“This will be from our own samples and not samples from commercial vessels or shrimp docks,” said Banks, who expressed optimism concerning what results might be obtained. “We tested thousands of seafood samples following BP and LDH never found levels of oil pollution in the meat of the samples that caused a public health concern.”

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U.S. Coast Guard District 8
The Coast Guard, the Louisiana Oil Spill Coordinator's Office and Hilcorp continued to respond Wednesday Aug. 10, 2022, to an oil spill in Terrebonne Bay.

The tank platform that collapsed had been secured Monday shortly after the incident and the impact on wildlife and marshes was minimal, the Coast Guard said. A flight showed no remaining recoverable oil within the area, and what was left was expected to dissipate naturally over the next few days.

The state Health Department closed the area to oyster harvesting at sunset Wednesday.

No other fisheries had been closed as of Wednesday night, the Coast Guard said. Marine safety information bulletins and broadcast notices were sent to mariners asking all vessels to avoid the area and maintain a safe distance from response operations.

Mariners are encouraged to report any stray oil to the National Response Center at (800) 424-8892.

Hilcorp has set up a claims line people affected by the spill may call at (281) 486-5511.