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Fishing families on the Louisiana bayou still fighting for their future

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Michael Roberts and Tracy Kuhns on the canal behind their house in Lafitte, LA. Photo: Ilene Perlman/Oxfam America

Last week I took a memorable ride in a very small boat. The flat-bottomed skiff belonged to Tracy Kuhns and Michael Roberts, leaders of Oxfam’s partner organization GO FISH, who keep it moored alongside their shrimping boat on the canal that borders their backyard.

In Lafitte, LA, where Kuhns and Roberts live, these canals are like streets, connecting families to one another and workers to their jobs. Neighbors waved to us as we cast off for a short trip from the nearby Mississippi River to the marsh-fringed Barataria Bay.

For generations, families in Lafitte and the surrounding communities have earned a living by harvesting fish, shrimp, and oysters from these waters. And until 2010—when the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill dumped millions of gallons into the Louisiana bayou—it seemed like the next generation would, too.

“My grandson has been going trawling since he was 18 months old. The boy can fish,” Kuhns told me proudly as Roberts steered the boat out under the wide, cloud-streaked sky. “Before the oil spill, he never even thought about doing anything else.”

Now, Kuhns and Roberts say, the spill has caused lasting, perhaps irreparable, damage to a resource already threatened by pollution and coastal erosion.

“Barataria Bay was ground zero for all of that oil,” said Kuhns, who witnessed layers of black sludge floating to the surface. Since then, she estimated, “our shrimp [harvest] is down by 60 to 70 percent. Fish and crabs, same thing.”

Last Thursday, BP pled guilty in a criminal case brought by the US Department of Justice. The company agreed to pay $4.5 billion in fines for its conduct leading up to the oil spill, the largest environmental disaster in US history. The verdict marks a step forward, but there is still much more to be done, including resolution of up to tens of billions more in civil penalties and damages from BP and potentially its business partners for violations of the Oil Pollution Act and Clean Water Act.

“We still have to repair the damage done to vital and fragile ecosystems, and to the thousands of families who live and work along the coastline,” said Oxfam’s Jeffrey Buchanan. (Read his latest post on BP here.) “We need to ensure the fines from this tragedy can be invested in strengthening their future.”

Kuhns and Roberts are working to make that happen through GO FISH, a multi-ethnic coalition of 10 Louisiana organizations that advocates for fishing families and educates them about their rights. This summer, they worked with Oxfam and its partners to help win a key victory with the passage of the RESTORE Act; that law could direct up to $21 billion—from civil fines yet to be assessed— to restore the coast and provide much-needed jobs for local people.

“You’re talking about federal legislation that has a huge impact on small communities like ours,” said Kuhns. “Oxfam helped us join with other groups so we can advise on impacts and work to change policies.”

For now, the boats still make their way up and down the canal in Lafitte. But something is missing that won’t be easily replaced.

“Kids from fishing families are used to being out on a boat every day. Since the oil spill, it’s been hard for them to understand why they can’t be on the water, catching catfish,” said Kuhns.

“Since then,” she added of her grandson, “he’s been a little lost.”

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