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In the Bayou, Husband and Wife Battle Oil Disaster and Fish for Survival

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In the Bayou, Husband and Wife Battle Oil Disaster and Fish for Survival

Originally posted here at NRDC

by Rocky Kistner, NRDC staff member and writer

Darla Rooks is a bayou fisherman to the core. When she married Todd 20 years ago, she wore her white plastic fishing boots under her wedding dress. Todd and Darla love shrimping in the coastal waters of Louisiana the way cowboys love riding the west Texas range.  It's in their blood--a  calling passed down through the generations--a  lifestyle they hope to pass on to their grandkids.

But the BP oil disaster may put an end to that. Now Darla and Todd are living on their boat, out of work, desperately trying to catch a few remaining shrimp before the cold winter winds blow them all out to sea. They're catching seafood the government says is safe, but they won't feed it to their grandkids, not after what they've been through this summer.

Listen to Louisiana shrimp fishermen Darla and Todd Rooks talk about the devastating impact of the BP oil disaster on their fishing community in the video slideshow below, the latest installment in a partnership between StoryCorps, NRDC and Bridge the Gulf--"Stories from the Gulf: Living with the BP Oil Disaster."

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It all started on a warm spring night last May in the fertile fishing grounds near Barataria Bay.  BP's busted undersea well was in its early days of eruption, spewing more than two million gallons of Louisiana crude into the sea each day. Todd and Darla were trawling at night near the Gulf in Four Bayou Pass, trying to capture as many shrimp as they could before the offshore oil finally made its way to the coast. Unknown to Todd and Darla, that night would be the first time the massive oil and chemical dispersant mix began pouring into the Barataria Bay.

Darla remembers what it felt that night after she was doused with water that she believes was full of oil and dispersants. It was like being covered in stinging jellyfish, she says, except there were no jellyfish to be found.

My husband shook the nets and water went on me. I didn't have a menstrual period for four months.  I had rash, itching irritated skin, something similar to bronchitis which I've never had. It lasted for three or four months. Eye irritations, heart pains, heart palpitations, involuntary muscles jumping all over my body, and continuous headaches day and night"all I would get is a about a 15 minute to a 20 minute break  from pain relievers that are specifically designed to get rid of headaches, that's the only break I would get.  And I had to eat those 24 hours a day, seven days a week for three to four months" And they want to tell me to eat the seafood?  Why don't they eat the seafood. I'll go catch them and I'll throw BP a big old boil".I'm not eating it.


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Photo by Lisa Whiteman/NRDC

Since then, Darla and Todd won't allow their grandkids to swim in the water, especially after their  six-year-old got splashed with water while riding on their boat and developed a painful red burn-like mark on his face. And when the oil gushed in and coated the marshes of their prized fishing grounds, they began to notice things they've never seen before. Shrimp were swimming on the top of the water during the day in 100-degree heat. Birds were strangely absent. Even the water didn't smell the same. "It's supposed to smell like fish, shrimp, crabs and oysters and salt," Darla says. "We smell nothing; it smells like tap water." 

Darla and Todd worked for a while on the BP cleanup, but when they started talking publicly about cleanup workers being exposed to oil without protective gear, they got angry. They say oil in the water and in the marshes, yet government officials were saying the water and seafood was safe. Not safe enough for them to swim in it or eat the seafood, Darla says. Darla spoke out at a town Hall meeting in Buras, and the next day, she says, their boat was taken off the cleanup and they were out of work. At some point the anger just boils over.

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