• April 20, 2015

Struggling to Survive When the Oysters Have Gone

Tyrone Turner

“We waited about 45 minutes too long, Tyrone,” says Warren Duplesis, the captain of the small flat-bottomed boat we’re riding in, as he eyes the approaching dark gray line on the horizon. After oyster fishing most of the day, the boat is heavy with our catch. The two deckhands pull up the dredge and made sure the bilge motor is working. It isn’t a question of whether we’re going to take on water but of keeping the boat—and its valuable cargo—afloat.

We’re in No Man’s Land, an area between bay Adams and the gulf, about 60 miles southeast of New Orleans. The trip back to the Empire marina was now going to take much longer than the 20-minute trip out that morning. “We are gonna get it,” says Warren as the waves start breaking over our bow.

Captain Myron Tinson, left, and deckhands Neil Harvey, middle, and John Terrence, pull up an oyster dredge. The oyster fishermen of Pointe à la Hache traditionally harvested oysters in waters on the east side of the river. However, since those areas haven’t been producing oysters since the spill, they have had to work on the west side of the river to make a living.

The darkness of the storm, punctuated by brilliant flashes of lightning, obscures the landmarks, and our group falls in behind a bigger oyster vessel. “Lead us home, Chu Chu,” Warren laughs as one of the crew members of the bigger boat raises his cell phone to photograph us from his warm, dry cabin.

Our engine dies. Warren’s brother, Andrew, tries to change the gas container in the driving rain, but the motor doesn’t restart. The other deckhand, Tyrone Encalade, lashes the boat to one of the others in our small group of three. “This is every day, Tyrone. Every day,” Warren says to me. That’s a lot of perilous every days in his 42 years of oystering.

A truck travels on a mist-shrouded LA 39
A truck travels on a mist-shrouded LA 39, the highway that connects Pointe à la Hache and other communities on the east bank of lower Plaquemines Parish. On the right side of the levee is the Mississippi River.

As we limp back into the harbor, I think about the years I have circled through Plaquemines Parish, this piece of earth and marsh lying on either side of the Mississippi River right before it empties out into the Gulf of Mexico. Every time I’m in New Orleans I feel the pull of these fingers of land at the edge of the sea.

My first extended experience there was in 2004, for a story about the disappearing wetlands of Louisiana. Over the next decade I returned to cover the aftermath of other disasters befalling this fragile ecosystem: Hurricane Katrina’s devastating slice right through the middle of Plaquemines before slamming into the Mississippi Gulf Coast and, in 2010, the BP oil spill that put Plaquemines in the bull’s-eye once again.

Portrait of an oyster fisherman from Pointe a la Hache, Louisiana
Myron Tinson, 52, of Pointe à la Hache, has fished oysters since he was 12 years old.

Like all of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands, the land has been formed by deposits from river floods over thousands of years. It’s fertile, but the things that are most harvested are under the ground, such as natural gas and oil, or out in the bayou on the other side of levee systems, such as seafood.

A grandmother with her grandchildren in Pointe a la Hache. Louisiana
Shannel Battle, right, holds her three-month-old grandson, Levi Harvey, as family members Shannair Battle, 12 (left), Dwayne Howard, 10 (second to left), and Diamond Howard, 6, shower affection on the baby.

The long-term impact of the oil and dispersants on the marshes and wildlife of the Gulf Coast is still not fully understood. But in the Plaquemines Parish community of Pointe à la Hache, where Warren and the rest of the oyster crew come from, things are not as they were before. Here on the east side of the Mississippi River, where this mostly black and Creole fishing community has traditionally done its fishing, the oysters have not come back in a meaningful way. They now need to travel across the river to the west bank and beyond—and, in the end, make a significantly smaller profit.

Girls dance team rehearsing for a community Mardi Gras parade in Pointe a la Hache, Lousiana
Phoenix High School’s Ph’inest Dance Team prepares to march in the community’s Mardi Gras parade in Pointe à la Hache. Besides local dance teams, the community parades in homemade floats pulled by pickup trucks.

Sitting outside a barber shop and barroom across the road from the Mississippi River levee, a gathering place for this quiet community, I talk with one of the other captains from our oyster trip, Myron Tinson. “I never would have thought that Pointe à la Hache would have run out of oysters, not in a million years,” he says after having been a fisherman for four decades.

Portrait of an oyster fisherman from Pointe a la Hache, Louisiana
Oyster fisherman Tyrone Encalade, 52, of Pointe à la Hache, started fishing oysters when he was 15.

“The oyster industry was the heartbeat, the soul of the Pointe à la Hache community … and that’s gone … this place [was] recession-proof. But now look at it. It’s a ghost town. Those that could get out, got out. Most of us here, we have nowhere else to go,” says Byron Encalade, the president of the Louisiana Oystermen Association in Pointe à la Hache.

Boys playing basketball in Pointe a la Hache, Louisiana
In Pointe à la Hache, the children grow up hunting and fishing, as well as playing sports like basketball. Some of the adults fear that without ready access to nearby oyster fishing there isn’t a chance to pass on this tradition to the younger people of the community.

“The destruction that I saw after Katrina was something that fishing communities knew how to deal with,” Byron says. Living in a storm-prone area, they were used to rebuilding houses and boats right afterward. No matter how devastating the hit, the oysters would still be there.

The oil spill was different. “It’s five years and we ain’t even started recovering,” says Byron.

With little work five years after the storm, oyster fishermen Leland Thomas, left, and Wilfred Encalade, spend idle time hanging out at the marina in Pointe à la Hache.

The fishermen of this community have been struggling to survive. Some, like Warren and Myron, travel to the other side of the river to work on oyster boats. Others, like Lennix Battle, have gotten “land” jobs at places like the nearby coal plant to pay bills, though he says he hasn’t had too many shifts lately.

Others still have started hunting. Almost every day, whatever is in season—rabbit, squirrel, duck, pig, deer—Karlan “Peanut” Barthelemy goes out to put food on the table.

Karlan “Peanut” Barthelemy skins a rabbit outside of his home. Peanut is known as a skilled hunter in the community; he gets much of his family’s meat through hunting.

I go along on a hunt with Peanut and his friends one day. As we follow the howls of his dogs chasing the scent of rabbit through thick bramble, I keep wary of the muzzle of his 16-gauge shotgun. We can hear other hunters in the party calling out for each other, keeping a safe distance while closing in on their prey.

Shots ring out. “You got him? You hit him?” Peanut shouts. Silence. A rabbit darts like lightning to the side of us. Peanut swings around and I hit the ground. The rabbit gets away. Peanut looks down at me, smiling. “I wasn’t gonna shoot you.”

Peanut takes a break from rabbit hunting to talk to his cousin, John Barthelemy.

Later we sit at his dinner table and eat rabbit stew with his six-year-old stepson. “You live off the land; that’s all we can do right now,” he says. “We ain’t got no money to go to town to buy food, put gas in the car. Nobody here’s got no money. They can’t go on no other job and work because they don’t know nothing else but fishing oysters.”

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There are 16 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Michael Diaz
    February 13, 2016

    Should do a follow up on all the Forgotten captains and deckhands that got the owners where they are today and they have forgotten about us.

  2. Paul Lozancich
    April 27, 2015

    They didn’t need to use dispersants. The dispersants are poison. The oil breaks down naturally. Clean up what you can but the rest breaks down naturally. It’s been doing that from natural oil spills for millions of years. Dispersants are just another item for BP to expense.

  3. Joseph Patterson
    April 26, 2015

    I don’t think that anyone knows what the long-term effects of the BP oil spill will be, but from what we have learned so far, it won’t be good. It could well be that the total cost to everyone who depends on the gulf in some way or another, will exceed the total value of BP and all of their holdings. Thus, they are going to fight long and hard to minimize their losses. We have to recognize that the gulf, and the deep land under it as well as the continent, are a commons, and we all have a stake in it. Big Oil has long regarded these oil deposits as their exclusive property, and that has got to stop. Everyone who was affected by the spill should be fully compensated, both by BP and by the political entities who permitted this! That means the gulf states and the U.S. government, as well as BP.

  4. bibol
    April 26, 2015

    Is this the area they built a canal so a storm could go straight up it?

  5. Nolan lang
    April 26, 2015

    Great info, well written,most interesting,enjoyed history,best wishes for those continuing the harvest–thank you so much!!!

    April 26, 2015

    I will pass this on to our Port Commissioners in Grays Harbor County, Washington State. Thank you for the vivid results

  7. Jeff LeBlanc
    April 26, 2015

    Thank you for this story. In many ways these are the forgotten people by BP and hundreds of high fee attorneys involved. They are quiet, proud, hard working people who just want to provide for their families, live their lives and have they same for their children. They are the ones that no one remembers or represents in the BP greed and their environmentally deadly attempt to hide the scope of their error by dumping tons of chemical dispersants even after the Federal Government ordered them to stop. It was not Katrina, but the greed of BP that have stripped these people of their way of life. It is a very sad situation and needs to be remedied. They have done nothing wrong and deserve their livilhood back and more importantly their pride.

  8. R.B. Nicholoff
    April 26, 2015

    Gico: They continue to vote Republican, against their own self interest. R’s are more interested in helping corporations like BP than the common folks.

  9. Dr. R. Michael “Mike” Gall
    April 26, 2015

    The “wild” oyster populations in the Gulf and in the Chesapeake Bay were in serious decline long before Katrina or the BP oil spill, largely because of runoff pollution and overfishing. This past year, 50% of the oysters harvested in the Chesapeake Bay (where I live) were farmed. But the total oyster population in the Bay is far below the boom days of the 60’s and early 70’s — and will remain that way for a long time to come. With continued investment in aqua-culture and in seeding of wild oyster beds, it is just barely possible to achieve sustainable levels — provided that harvest levels are carefully managed. The bottom line is that we have done the same thing to the oysters as we did to the Grand Banks cod — we harvested them indiscriminately, ate them with abandon, and blithely assumed that they would always be there. Wrong.

  10. sam smith
    April 26, 2015

    These people in the Mississippi Delta region have a head-start on lifestyle readjustment, most industries dependent on aspects of Nature are dying of the pheniminon of ‘death of a thousand cuts’, each of which are man-made. No need here for a litany of said cuts, if you are unaware of them you effectively have been living in a locked box somewhere.

  11. George V. Williams
    April 26, 2015

    The damage done to the waters of the Gulf, by the devastating BP spill (that could well have been avoided, had not inferior sealing cement been used,) as well as years and years of pollution, may well signal the death of the Gulf. At very least, it will not recover within the next coming 50 – 60 years. This modern tragedy, attributable in no small measure to corporate greed, is even no further exacerbated by the odd, continuing denials by BP.

  12. Sara Roeper
    April 26, 2015

    This is the first step in getting help to a community in need like this, but the daily struggle just to put food on the table in an area with little access to information about HOW to get help from outside sources, not to mention some well founded suspicion of outsiders, will stymie their access to legitimate large-scale resources that are available. If we can disseminate information about the situation – the whole situation – human, environmental, economic, devestated, upward through our government, make it pertinent to the people in office, they will mobilize the myriad resources at their disposal. And this is how … Making us aware of the situation, spread the word! Write to the congressman of the district, the senator, let’s mobilize resources to help. If we have just a moment to write an email, we can make a powerful politician aware of this, a scientist in the Chesepeake, an exec at BP…

  13. Jo Ellen Pearman
    April 21, 2015

    Come east, up the Panhandle, and the situation is the same, in Apalachicola, and the men and women of Eastpoint. Partly due to the spill, and partly due to the lack of fresh water we’re receiving from Lake Lanier. And, we are suing Atlanta for the latter of the two reason. Even thought the oil didn’t reach this far east, the bay was stripped, because of the fear of it coming. These oystermen haven’t been compensated either, or been given any alternatives as far as how to support their families, through this crisis. The only compassion that BP has shown, is for their money, and keeping it to themselves!

  14. Anne S.
    April 21, 2015

    I watched a special in Virginia about oyster agriculture opportunities to repopulate the Chesapeake Bay oyster population last night on the PBS channel; the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and the oystermen are working together through experience and knowledge about the rivers and environment plus adding science and have come a long way into understanding how to handle problems while still maintaining this historical way of life for watermen. They may have much knowledge that would help those in Louisiana and the Gulf. Well worth exploring!!

  15. Tyrone Turner
    April 21, 2015

    Thanks so much for your comment. I was in the community yesterday at a meeting of local leaders and fishermen for the 5 year anniversary of the oil disaster and they were talking about just that- they were saying that they haven’t been compensated and their source of income has not come back. I asked what will the community be like in 5 more years if the situation continues and one fisherman said that there will be no one left to file a claim. They were working on strategies to connect better with local state and federal authorities as well as BP. They want their voice to be heard.

  16. Gico Dayanghirang
    April 20, 2015

    Didn’t the oil companies compensate these communities for the oil spill damage? If not, cant’ they sue these oil companies? What immediate and sustainable remedies if any has the US government done for them in the aftermath of the oil spill? Moreover, what about their local politicians and Representative to Congress? What meaningful interventions have they done for these people? I’ve been a Representative to Congress here in the Philippines. Whenever something like this happens, usually due to natural causes like typhoons where farms and houses are completely destroyed, I’m up to my neck mobilizing all sorts of immediate and long-term remedies both from private and state sources.

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