Bill Finch, the director of conservation for The Nature Conservancy in Alabama, is blogging for Cool Green Science about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the Conservancy’s efforts in Alabama to protect shellfish reef restoration projects there. Read all his posts.
BAYOU LA BATRE, ALABAMA, May 2, 2010 — On Saturday morning, barges decked with giant coils of fluorescent yellow and orange booms designed to contain the coming oil spill here bobbed among fading shrimp boats on the Bayou (which is what the Alabama coastal community is called here).
There must be 30 miles of these floating vinyl tubes stacked up at multiple deployment areas all along the Alabama coast. All morning, tugs and a flotilla of smaller boats let off steam, ready to get the goods on the water before high winds drive the slick ashore.
Jeff Dequattro, the Nature Conservancy’s oyster restoration project manager here in Alabama, had pulled off something like a miracle, collecting 3,500 feet of boom and pallets of absorbent material from two or three different states in 24 hours. Just enough, maybe, to intercept the first swells of oil before they coat our newly established oyster reef around Coffee Island. The boom is on board, but the anchors are still in transit — to the wrong destination, we suddenly learn. Jeff rushes off to intercept. We wait as the wind blows harder.
Residents of the Bayou drive by anxiously, stopping to watch the Coast Guard crews load and unload, looking for any information that will give them a clue to what’s happening in the middle of the Gulf. As the crew of the Conservancy’s hired barge unfurls another roll of boom onto the deck, a man hops out of his pickup and offers them the use of his big crane.
Then he pleads: We have to do something to stop this. The crew said the man almost cried when they told him they couldn’t think of a way to use a giant crane right now.
Bayou La Batre is an industrial-strength fishing village on the Alabama coast — almost due north of what used to be the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. A forest of shrimp-boat spars line the twisting bayou that runs through the heart of the community. On old Shellbank Road, mountains of oyster shells — ready to build new reefs — stand between seafood processing facilities, boatyards and bait shops.
Every immigrant community that has made its way into Mobile’s three-century-old society seems to have started here on the Bayou — Creole, Caribbean, African, Norwegian, Greek and (starting a few decades ago) Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian refugees. It’s sometimes an uneasy alliance, but each community finds a niche, picking crabs at the processors, or setting crab traps in the bay, tonging oysters off the reefs or shucking them for canning. There are shrimpers, commercial fishers, and the people who build their boats. There are ship chandlers that supply the boats, and restaurants that feed the crews.
Everyone who comes to the Bayou makes a living off the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. There is no living here without it.
The winds pick up. Even in the protection of the bayou, the crew teeters in the gusts. Jeff calls. The captain says no go. There’s no way to hold a barge steady in this blow, no way to anchor boom when the tides are surging several feet above normal. If the winds let up, maybe tomorrow. Monday perhaps. Tuesday for sure, if the worst of the oil hasn’t already rolled ashore. A crew down in Dauphin Island dropped a thousand feet of boom in front of 50 miles of marsh before the seas drove them home. But no one knows if the anchors will hold.
After a gray day of disappointments and predictions of the very worst, we look for glimmers. Keith Ouchley, director of the Conservancy’s Louisiana program, sends one. The boom deployments were called off there as well. But a quick survey of the southeast Louisiana marsh, where the spill should already have rolled ashore, revealed surprisingly little oil. Maybe, as someone suggested, the rough surf works in our favor, shattering the thin edge of the slick, volatilizing some of the oil before it reaches shore. Maybe. For how long? What happens when the thicker stuff rolls in? What happens if it goes on days, weeks, months?
Tonight, the winds are turning hard toward Alabama. We’ve got barges, we’ve got boom — I guess we’ve even got a big crane if anyone can figure out what to do with it. But for a few more hours at least, those of us on the Bayou will just have to wait to see what the Gulf will do.
(Image 1: Jesse Eldridge, foreman for the J&W Marine crew working with The Nature Conservancy, rips off a length of oil-collecting boom while other crew members lay it carefully on deck for deployment. Image 2: Another view of the Bayou and shrimp boats, with boom loaded on a barge. Image credits: Bill Finch/TNC.)