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Life Arts    H4'ed 1/30/11

A Gulf Fisherman Prays his 'White Gold' is Untainted by Oil

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Acy Cooper is a proud native son of Venice, LA, a storm-battered fishing and oil service town at the end of the bayou south of New Orleans. Acy calls this "God's country," home base for some of the best shrimping and fishing in the country. This is where he cut his teeth as a commercial fisherman, just as his father did before him. But after the BP oil disaster spewed nearly 200 million gallons of crude into his fishing grounds, Acy isn't so sure what the future will bring.

Listen to Venice, LA, fisherman Acy Cooper talk about the impact of the BP oil disasterin the video slide show below, the latest installment in a partnership between StoryCorps, NRDC and Bridge the Gulf--"Stories from the Gulf: Living with the BP Oil Disaster.

As vice-president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, Acy represents about 600 shrimpers across the state. These are tough-as-nails fisherman. You have to be tough to weather the massive Gulf storms and endure the exhausting cycle of non-stop fishingevery spring and summer. Last year was supposed to be a bumper crop, and Acy says everyone was ready to cash in after several lean years of low prices.

We used to call it white gold. We used to wear hats called white gold. This was the best in the country and people paid for it. This was going to be our year to come out and make a few dollars where we didn't have notin' to worry about. Now we've got a whole big ball of wax we've got to chop up and try and see what we're going to do with, because everything is not pretty right now.

When the oil spread like a cancer into the marshes and bays of the bayous last summer, Acy worked hard to get local fishermen hired on the cleanup. But in the chaos of BP's cleanup operation, some locals never got jobs. Instead many jobs went to outside contractors. Some locals had to sit by hoping for a check from BP, watching their treasured fishing grounds fill up with oil. That left a deep scar on this close-knit community.

Right now we've still got hard feelings with a few people in the parish, elected officials, and these were good friends of mine. And right now we hardly speak- it hurts to see how something like this can divide your community.

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Acy and deckhand Ray shrimping on Barataria Bay, LA Photo by Lisa Whiteman/NRDC

Getting work wasn't the only thing that divided the community. After the well was capped in July, state agencies opened the fishing grounds quickly. Officials said none of the shrimp were contaminated, but Acy and others weren't so sure. He fought to keep the waters closed to fishing until more testing had been done. Acy knew his fellow shrimpers had to fish to survive, but he didn't like the risk of selling shrimp tainted with oil either. The stakes were too high.

If we get something out there that is tainted we want to stop it before it gets out on the market because we only have one chance at this. So if we sell something now and someone get sick then we have a problem. That's how you tear communities apart. Some people say it's going to be good and some people say it's got issues.

Right now there are a lot of issues facing commercial fishermen like Acy. Independent tests are showing oil and dispersants in the water and hydrocarbonsin seafood. And thousands of miles of the Gulf were closed to Royal Red Shrimp after shrimpers pulled up nets full of tar balls while dragging in deep water.

Acy doesn't know what to think. His job is to catch and sell seafood, but he's worried. He's seen black gills in shrimp that he's never seen before. He's heard other fishermen talk about finding shells of shrimp that appear to be eaten away and crabs blackened inside. The government says it's safe, but he wonders how that could be when a record amount of oil invaded their paradise.

But what really gnaws at Acy is the uncertainty about the welfare of future generations.

What about my sons of sons? Are they going to have opportunity for this? Cause we know there going to be an issue but we don't know what's going to happen at this point but we know it's going to affect our generation to come. There's a lot at stake.

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Acy Cooper on his shrimp boat in Venice, LA Photo by Lisa Whiteman/NRDC

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Rocky Kistner is a media associate with the Natural Resources Defense Council. Since June, 2010, he has focused on the BP oil disaster in the Gulf, working out of NRDC's Gulf Resource Center in Buras, LA. He is a been a print and broadcast (more...)
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