As Gulf fishermen are forced to work for the oil company that destroyed their livelihoods, who will train Louisiana’s next generation to fish?
Homepage photo via Flickr by kris krüg
(a sign near the Campo marina)
FJ Campo sits at a table with two receipt books on either side of him. He sells fuel and bait to fishermen from his Shell Beach, Louisiana marina. A fan blows the odor of freshly cut plywood boards he used to expand his bait shop. He waves as a shrimp boat passes on the other side of the dock past tall marsh grasses where a raccoon rubs its front paws together in the water. Bars of yellow light pour in a bright sheen across the water and heat shimmers the shoreline. The sky blindingly blue.
FJ recalls trawling for shrimp when he was twelve. In those days, everything was done by hand. No mechanical winches like now. He had always wanted to be on the water. Fresh air. No putting up with smart alecks. No road rage. A freedom most people don’t have. Have to be self-motivated though. You got to drag your ass out of bed at 4 a.m. Some people can’t get up at 8 a.m., and if they do they need an alarm clock to do it.
Two quarts oil, FJ, a fisherman shouts.
On the radio, FJ overhears about an oil rig that blew up. Deepwater something. Belongs to BP. OK, so? Not the first spill. Won’t be the last. Hurricanes and spills. There’s always something.
His day ends at 6 p.m. FJ drives home on the twisting snake-strip piece of pavement that is the only road in Shell Beach. He smells the damp wood of docked oyster boats and shrimp boats. He smells the salt-wet air and the odor of fish and fuel and damp nets mixed together. He sees sky-surfing sea gulls, hears their calls, and never tires of any of it.
At home, he sinks in a chair and flips on the TV. See what the fuck happened today. Eleven people killed, burned up in that oil rig explosion. That bothers him. Their kids, wives, fathers, mothers will never see them again. Bodies incinerated to ash. How do they say goodbye? If he was given a choice of burning to death or killing his best friend, FJ has no doubt he’d say, Sorry buddy, and blow his friend’s brains out.
This can’t be good, FJ thinks.
_The Florida Department of Environmental Protection_
He was born in 1942 and named Frank Campo, Jr., FJ for short. His father was nicknamed Blackie because of his dark Castilian skin color and volatile Latin temper. Both sides of the family moved to New Orleans and then Shell Beach from Barcelona.
Blackie took fishing parties out that included celebrities like trumpet player and band leader Al Hirt. When they weren’t fishing, Blackie would sometimes meet Hirt in Las Vegas to watch Mohammad Ali fight. He threw dice in the casinos to pay for his trip.
In those days, FJ’s grandfather towed two skiffs behind a big boat. When the fishing party reached deep water, they would row the skiffs to where they wanted to fish. Hours later, they rowed back to the big boat with their catch. The big boat had a Johnson outboard motor and didn’t go but seven, eight miles an hour. Had an updraft carburetor which gave the old man all kinds of fits. Nothing then was very reliable except his grandmother’s home brew. Back rooms full of the shit. She cleaned up. Slick old bird.
FJ’s godfather owned a boat with a flat-head motor. One day the motor wouldn’t start, and he got all pissed-off mad. FJ, still a boy, watched him take a hatchet and break off the distributor. Swung again and took out the carburetor. Again. Took out the plugs. Walked to a hardware store and bought new plugs, distributor, and carburetor. FJ tagged along. Back on the boat, his godfather rebuilt the engine and got that bad boy going. If I had an axe in here instead of a hatchet I’d have finished it in one swing, he told FJ.
That kind of shit made an impression, FJ says.
_MSNBC.com_, May 3, 2010
On July 5, 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife shut down Lake Borgne, about seven, eight miles away from FJ’s marina and where most of the Shell Beach fishermen trawled for shrimp. FJ blames the weather. Storms the weekend before did them in. Winds blew for four days and rolled all that oil in. The feds told FJ to stop selling bait. He distributes only fuel now to fishermen hired by BP to lay boom and stop the oil from reaching the marshes.
The fishermen arrive at 5 a.m. every day for a briefing with BP contractors in a trailer across from FJ’s marina. At the briefing, the fishermen are told what part of the Gulf to put boom that day, where to patrol for tar balls, where to look for oil. Each fisherman has an ID card with his photograph, name, and a bar code.
After the briefing, a woman enters FJ’s marina and sits across from him with a palm-size scanner. When a fisherman docks his boat for gas, she scans his bar code and then types in the amount of fuel and oil he requested. She writes the same information down in a notebook. FJ jots it down as well in a receipt book.
He doesn’t know why she has to keep track of the same thing he keeps track of. Everything’s screwed up. Fishermen have told FJ that the dock in Hopedale only five minutes away sells gasoline mixed with water. They figure the supplier must be trying to stretch it and get every dime he can. Looks like Gatorade and tears up an engine. They refer to Hopedale as hell. Where you going today? I’m going to hell.
I’m buying a lock, he said. If I have no money tomorrow, I’m going to put a lock on my door and I’m not selling anybody any fuel.
Guys who have fished for years can’t get their boats on the cleanup list. They could be paid nearly one thousand dollars a day or more depending on the size of their boat and whether it is used to distribute boom or skim oil. Other guys who have never fished in their life get their boats on the list like it was nothing. They have money, FJ figures. You got a crew boat? Yeah. Give me fifty dollars a day and I’ll get you listed. It has always been that way in Louisiana. Kick backs. FJ sees more people walking around with duh on their faces than he can count.
The other day, FJ got so strung out he was liable to shoot someone. BP had him order all this gas and diesel to sell, but no one gave him any money to pay for it. It was his name on the twenty-nine-thousand-dollar tab. He went to the parish president. I’m buying a lock, he said. If I have no money tomorrow, I’m going to put a lock on my door and I’m not selling anybody any fuel.
You can’t do that.
Don’t tell me what I can’t do, FJ told him. I’m the king here. I set the rules.
This morning, a check was delivered. Damn, how about that? FJ said.
_Rules For Shrimping_
Stay out until you run out of ice.
Stay out until you run out of fuel.
Stay out until you catch a load of shrimp or you get so horny you got to come home.
No average income, no average trip.
Might make a load of shrimp in one day.
Might come home with nothing.
_But Know This_
It pays well. Twelve, thirteen-year-olds making six hundred dollars a week working with their daddies.
Put an old timey fisherman’s soul in a young man’s body and he’d be a fucking mule, yes sir.
Outside the front door, a .270 caliber bolt-action rifle.
Above it a sign,
It’s not just a word
But a way of life
Inside Alton Blappert’s house, Spanish moss hangs from the wood-beamed ceiling. Carries the scent of marsh grass and soft motionless air.
Alton Blappert says:
Everyone knew Blackie Campo. Mr. Blackie we called him. I always bought my bait from him and then FJ until this happened. Everyone knew the minute the Deepwater well blew it was trouble. It’s over with. This is our breeding season. Oil’ll kill everything off. No doubt about it.
Alton sits on a broken-down couch, no springs beneath the worn cushions to support his slight weight. He is a lean man, leathered muscles stretched taut as if rubber bands cause little ripples to spread beneath the skin when he moves, all knobby elbows and knees and whiskey breath and cigarettes. Beside him, a sleeping black cat tore up by a coyote the night before.
When I was a kid coming up, I liked everything about fishing, yes sir. Mainly the money. I shrimped twenty-eight years.
He stands and crosses the wood floor to the refrigerator. Removes a thick chunk of thawed chicken breast from a cutting board and skewers it onto a hook the size of his palm. Hang it later from a tree for the coyotes. Swallow this hook and that’s it, he’s done.
My daddy started taking me fishing when I was five years old. Shrimp, crab, mollusks, red fish, trout. Fifty-five years later I fell through an attic down to the first floor. Broke bones in my neck. That did me. Just as well. If I was still fishing I would be done for.
On a Wednesday evening, fisherman George Barasich drives his pickup through the streets of Arabi, a New Orleans suburb about a forty-minute drive from Shell Beach. Green balled-up shrimp nets bounce in the back.
Sure, he knows FJ, knew his old man better though. Mr. Blackie’d give you the shirt off his back. Literally. One time, maybe in January, a fisherman showed up for fuel in just a T-shirt. What was he thinking? Goose bumps the size of chicken eggs. Mr. Blackie didn’t say anything, just took off his wool shirt and gave it to him. Next morning he found it on his dock hanging from a hook with a note in the breast pocket. Thanks.
They’ll say, I was a little kid when the Deepwater well blew and I don’t remember when people fished, and Robert will have to explain it to them.
At an intersection, a homeless man holds a sign that reads, Help a Vet. I’ll work for food. He notices the shrimp nets and asks George if he could spare a few shrimp for a meal.
They shut me down, George says.
That’s sad, the homeless man says. Where’re shrimp going to come from?
Sure. The oil’s moving that way but it’s still offshore.
George drives through the intersection, passes house after empty house still scarred from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina. Spray-painted circles and slashes show that firefighters searched these houses for survivors. Numbers beside the slashes indicate the number of bodies found. Five years later, the numbers have faded, and broken windows let in the summer drizzle that gathers in pools and spills through cracks in the walls, filling the vacant houses with the sound of ruin.
It’s like somebody died. Same feeling but worse. Knowing he’s not debt-free adds to George’s worries. His solvency depended on making enough money each month fishing. That’s out the door. He feels anxious and sick at the loss of doing what he loves best. The thrill of the chase. The ability to be on the water. Fighting mother nature. He really doesn’t want to work for BP, but he can’t sit around three or four years. Can’t let his family suffer. Take a lick first before that happens.
You got shrimp, a man shouts from outside one of the Katrina-destroyed homes.
They shut me down, brother, George says.
Years ago, after the fishermen came in for the night, after they drove home and showered, FJ and his father would stop by the house of Miss Jonsie. She made bread this big around, FJ says. She served coffee and melted butter and the men gathered on her porch and shot the shit. If someone said they were building a boat, the next day everyone would show up at their house with hammers and saws. Miss Jonsie didn’t charge a thing. If he was a good kid, FJ would get a hunk of bread and eat with the rest of the men. Other boys who interrupted the adults got whacked in the head by whoever was closest to them. FJ stayed quiet, listened to their stories, learned.
You see your daddy zigzag the boat in the water?
You ask, why’d you do that? He says, Bad stump, boy. Got to go around it. So when you run your own boat you know about that stump. Or you hit it and go, God damn, forgot about that stump daddy told me about. That happens.
Trout follow shrimp.
You keep learning things. Can’t drag here. Turn here. Stay on the other side of the marsh in this part. We’re not turtles. This doesn’t come by instinct.
You got your tides. The currents before a full moon always pick up. When the tide is running good, use wing nets. Trawling is better in a slack tide because shrimp settle on the bottom. A slack tide and a light wind out of the southeast or east is best for sports fishermen.
Fish bite better in the morning up until eight, nine o’clock.
Some people think everything’s got a price but you can’t buy this kind of knowledge. Maybe in the world they live in, but not here. The world we live in, that is not the case.
FJ’s first two shrimp boats were named Lacy Marie and Brandy Michelle by their previous owner. It was bad luck to change the names. It was considered bad luck to bring bananas on board too. He named his third boat Lady Gloria after his wife. When they divorced, he renamed it Miss Cathy Ann for his daughter. A wife may not always be your wife, but a daughter will always be your daughter, he says.
They sent me out to collect tar balls without any nets. What do they want me to do? Cut a plastic milk jug in half and scoop up the balls?
They gave me eight-foot two-by-fours to tie the boom to, but the two-by-fours are too short to hold in the marshes and they get carried away by the current. You got all this oily boom and two-by-fours floating around out there.
I came back because some asshole sent me to the wrong spot. We don’t need you here. Oh, God damn. I went out here for nothing.
It’s a fucking joke.
Pa-Pa, forty gallons gas, two gallons two-stroke oil.
FJ writes it down. His grandson Robert Campo hefts two bottles of oil from a box, tosses them to a fisherman. The gal sitting across from FJ scans the fisherman’s bar code.
Robert stands on the dock near two empty bait containers, the wind whipping his hair. The dock creaks beneath his feet and he watches shrimp boats loaded with soft white booms maneuvering behind one another. Robert was four when FJ first took him on a shrimp boat. He ran around the deck, played with a toy fishing pole. By the time he was nine, he was driving the boat, handing out life jackets to sports fishermen, filling the gas tank. When he wasn’t working and wasn’t in school, he fished. Red fish, trout, all varieties.
(Robert knows what’s going on, FJ says. He’ll remember.
It was fun just to get out on the water and have a talk with his pa-pa. They talked about anything really. Fishing. Family. Think we’ll get any here, pa-pa? Yeah, FJ would say. His pa-pa thought like a fish. He knew the winds and the strength of the sun and how at different times of the morning it would send light sliding across the water while beneath its heat the fish swam and sought food.
I got some real small grandkids. They won’t remember like Robert.
It was on a weekend, a Friday or a Saturday, when Robert’s father called him on his cell phone and told him about the oil spill. Robert had just come home from football practice. His father was almost crying. This ain’t good, he told Robert. Now his father works for BP.
Robert can’t fathom his family not selling bait and trawling for shrimp. No bait, people can’t fish. If people don’t fish, what else is there? At least his father can weld. He’s a good welder.
They’ll say, I was a little kid when the Deepwater well blew and I don’t remember when people fished, and Robert will have to explain it to them.)
Robert can still see himself with that little reedy toy fishing pole. Scampering around like the boat was one big tree fort. One of those very clear memories that feels beyond reach. When I grow up, I’m going to own my own boat and be like you, he told his father.
He doesn’t think so now, no sir.
“The Place Where Memories Are Made”
Shell Beach * Overnight Accommodations
Gas & Diesel * Live Bait * Ice & Drinks
Hard for FJ to believe his father has been dead two years. Ninety years old. Can’t live forever.
Two, three years ago, FJ started losing his voice. Last January, he lost his voice entirely. His doctor told him he had cancer of the vocal cords. Just like that? FJ asked. Just like that, his doctor said. He had an operation a short time later that has reduced his voice to a raspy whisper, but removed the cancer. Whispering is better than dying.
FJ looks like his father. The same wide chest, thick shoulders. The expressions on his face alternate between a scowl and a squint. He gets a kick out of sayings, especially, It ain’t bragging if it’s true. Who said that? Jimmy Dean? FJ doesn’t know, but repeats it to death laughing hoarsely each time he does. He scrutinizes those around him nose to nose to make sure they appreciate the humor too.
Big as he is, FJ is not as big as his father. Hard to imagine a man with hands so large he could hold a wrack of fifteen billiard balls in the open palm of either hand with the cue ball set on top for good measure would ever die. Blackie Campo placed bets with people who refused to believe he could do such a thing. He brought home more free groceries that way. Cases of beans, sacks of rice.
God help BP if he were alive now.
Fish here and you’re violated if you keep them.
Supposed to let them go?
Yeah, they’ve shut all this down. Fish and release it’s called.
Makes no sense. Still the same water.
Gotta let them go if you fish here.
Fish Hopedale Lagoon?
Try. What they will tell you is leave, shit.
This oil’s killing us.
Pay for your license and can’t fish.
Get your money back.
If it was that easy I’d stuff my firstborn back up my wife and ask for my money back.
Faded advertisements promoting different types of hunting rifles decorate the walls around the refrigerator of Alton Blappert’s house. Paintings of labradors holding dead pheasant in their mouths, a camouflaged hunter behind them. In one corner, framed black-and-white photographs show how Shell Beach once looked. Gravel streets. 1929 Ford cars. Creased faces barely revealed. Fogged over. They stand on the wood plank sidewalks caught in the viewfinder but too far away to be distinct. Ghostly blurs outside some now vanished store.
_Los Angeles Times_, June 12, 2010
Like her husband Frank Campo, Sr., Mabel Campo grew up in a family of fishermen on nearby Delacroix Island. Just about everybody was a fisherman and a trapper. She doesn’t remember having much. There was always food on table but not a lot of luxury. At that time neighbors were very close. If her mother had extra milk she’d give it to a family that had none. Those days were a pleasure to live through, yes sir. Yards so nice. She could always walk the shore in grassy spots and scoop up soft-shell crabs. A wilderness now since Katrina.
Frank Campo played baseball with the Delacroix Island team. He shrimped after they married, and she ran a country store with one gas pump and sold kerosene. She woke up three, four in the morning and with her husband rented out boats to sports fishermen and sold bait.
Seems so far-fetched to think about now.
Dean Blanchard sits behind his desk, looks out the window at his silent dock on Grand Isle a good three-hour drive from Shell Beach. Sure, he knows FJ. He’s the one with the big marina, right? He knew Mr. Blackie better than FJ. Saw him on the TV. Any time some reporter had a question about fishing, they called on Mr. Blackie.
Before the spill, Dean ran a full-service dock and processed a million pounds of mostly shrimp a year. Ninety-two percent shrimp, seven-and-a-half percent fish, he estimates. Something like that.
Opened in 1972, surrounded by eight much larger competitors. He was the family-owned store next to a Wal-Mart. He stood up to those Goliaths for twenty-eight years and drove each one out of business. At fifty-one, he planned to reap the rewards for a life’s work.
He shows a spread sheet.
Last year, between July 1 and July 12, he sold $1.6 million dollars of shrimp. This year for the same period and after all the closures, he sold just $241,658.47.
That’s a difference, he says.
Look here. This ice machine. Cost half a million dollars. Last year for those same dates, he sold $15.2 million dollars of ice. This year for same period, just $231.00. The Goddamn ice machine’s electric bill is ten thousand dollars a day. You do the math.
He had ninety employees, but has laid off all but eight or nine. That number’s fixing to go down even more.
We’re fucked, he says.
His momma’s side of the family was in the oil business. His daddy was in oil. He knows how these people operate. Jesus hung around with fishermen, he didn’t hang out with no oil men.
There’s a reason, Dean says.
Alton Blappert wanders onto his porch and considers a dense row of trees behind his property. That’s where they come. Coyotes. He raises the .270 caliber, sites it at nothing, fires. Just to let them know he knows they are there. The noise swells stuff cotton inside his head.
It’s not a business. It’s a way of life out here.
I remember when corn, apples, and grapes grew right by shore. Big old mess of white clam shells on land. You could lay on them and they would be cool on top.
You’ve lived too long.
If my daddy came back he wouldn’t want to live here.
The longer this oil lasts, the longer fishermen will work for BP. They might like it. They might not return to fishing even if they can.
My daddy bought the first automobile here. 1948. Took five hours to drive from here to Arabi. You had to stop and change tires. Five or six flats at least because of all the shells.
What place had the ice cream?
No, The Four Stop.
Root beer float.
The first trawl came from Biloxi in 1946, ’47. The guy who had it attached it to his cabin and pulled the Goddamn cabin right off.
Who was that guy with the big suitcase and police dog?
He bought muskrat furs. Six dollars apiece. My uncle Pasqual took all his money and bought a house.
In those days, you get fifty, sixty baskets of crabs and you could be home by 10 o’clock in the morning.
Set your line right. You tie your bait every six feet. Slip knot. Hold your line back and get the slack out of it. Crabs stayed on the bait as you pulled the line up. Scoop them in with a net.
Traps licked that. Don’t have to work at it now. They’re in the traps.
Different caliber of fishermen then.
You’ve lived too long.
George Barasich sees the problem this way. The longer this oil lasts, the longer fishermen will work for BP. They might like it. They might not return to fishing even if they can. As the older guys leave, who trains the younger ones to fish?
He thinks of his father, how the old man watched him set nets, pick up the trawl, sort shrimp, and throw what wasn’t marketable overboard. You’re slowing down, boy, he’d say. Pick up those shrimp. He had a lot of expectations and never offered a compliment. But if George did something wrong, the old man would be on him. It was just his way. The old man was born in Croatia and followed his father to Biloxi when he was eleven. Then George’s grandfather decided to return to the old country. His father stayed. There was nothing for him in Croatia. No such thing as foster care in those days. Fishermen raised him.
George made his kids work too. The oldest son is an electrical engineer. Another son is enrolled in Vanderbilt University. His sixteen-year-old daughter attends a private high school in Baton Rouge. Nine grand a year. Before the spill, all George did was work.
July 8, 2010
Folks here use hurricanes to measure time. Back in the day, they might say, Was that before Hurricane Betsy or after? Then Hurricane Katrina struck and blew Betsy permanently into the past. Now it’s “before the spill” and “after the spill.” Who would have thought anything would have been bigger than Katrina?
Katrina wiped out the Campo marina. Nothing left but space and wind and angry water. The fuel tanks lay in the few woods left standing. FJ set them on blocks and washed them out. An EPA guy all suited up asked him, what did he think he was doing? Don’t take a fucking genius, FJ told him. I’m washing my fuel tanks.
That’s not legal, the EPA guy said.
Tell you what, FJ told him. Why don’t you get out? We’ve lost everything and you talk about legal, you motherfucker.
He was hot, tired, sweating, and cleaning a six-thousand-gallon fuel tank. The parish sheriff, district attorney, judges, and state senators bought their bait from the Campo marina. Who did this guy think he was?
Before you get too stupid I’ll pull strings you’ve never seen, FJ said. Get your ass out. I’m the king here.
_Science Daily_, March 1, 2007
Dean Blanchard hears stories, conspiracy theories. Like who-really-killed-JFK kind of stories. But these stories are all about BP. A lot of people are talking. Saying things like the contractors BP has hired to do the clean-up are directing shrimp boats away from the oil so it comes in on the beaches and they make more money because it will take more time to clean. Fishermen have told him that if you call in oil at certain coordinates the guy on the other end says, Don’t tell nobody. Go ten miles the other way. When you don’t see nothing, throw anchor.
Dean doesn’t know the truth from the lies. He’s just saying. It’s what he’s heard.
He blames George Washington. Should have killed all the British when he had the chance.
At night Dean hears airplanes and helicopters fly overhead. Next day, oil in the water he saw with his own eyes is gone. Disbursements? What else? Guess what, they can’t find oil for two weeks. Then it comes back. More billable hours.
He’s just saying.
BP hired him to haul oil barges. But then they took that away from him. Asked some other group to do it. Dean raised hell about it this morning. Cursed out the mayor. He told him, You want my two dogs? Well, one died. I’ll bring you my last dog and my wife, how’s that? You’ve taken everything else from me.
As soon as she heard the news and saw oil gushing out of the Deepwater well on TV, Mabel Campo knew they were in trouble. Oh my God, she says, I’m almost happy Blackie’s not here. He would be out of his mind. Hurricanes are bad, but the Campos always survived them. Most of these old fishermen she knows can’t read or write. What other work can they do?
She won’t live anywhere else but Shell Beach. She stayed in Baton Rouge with nine cousins for a while during Katrina. She was so happy to return to Shell Beach. Baton Rouge was quiet. No noise, just like here, but it was still different and not to her liking, yes sir.
She knows FJ finds it hard to be reimbursed by BP. The family can’t keep charging stuff. They have never owed so much. Not used to operating like this, no sir.
A friend had a heart attack. She knew he would. Saw it coming in his face. He’s out of the hospital now, but she doesn’t know how he’s making out.
What’s it going to be like when this is over?
_Telegraph_, September 21, 2010
FJ wakes up still thinking about the spill. Like his brain doesn’t go to sleep any more. He used to figure out shit when he was asleep. Now he doesn’t. Just wakes up, listens.
No one sits around and bullshits anymore. No one gets together. It’s like they’ve locked their doors against something dangerous and undefined coming back. They’ve locked each other out too. This isn’t who they are but it is what they’ve become.
FJ sits in his boat in the middle of Lake Borgne. Sea gulls soar above him, the sun barely up. The air still cool. Waves roll against the boat like a dog licking his hand. He tastes salt and the freshness of the blue space around him. He and his grandson don’t talk. Only the breeze whispers in his ears, leaving his mind a peaceful blank with water lifting his boat in gentle swells.
He is chasing something he can’t see beneath the dark waters, bonded together with that something by generations of fishermen who did the same thing and whose blood he carries, and whose faces other than his daddy’s and granddaddy’s he only knows through pictures and stories. He assumes it will be this way tomorrow and the next day and the day after that until he, too, is a framed photograph in the hands of a great-great-grandchild who will know only his picture and the stories told about him when he was king.
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