BP ‘gross negligence’ means billions for the Gulf

Image by Louisiana GOHSEP.

The phrases “gross negligence” and “willful misconduct” were likely not given much thought by fishermen across the Gulf Coast before April 2010.

But, any angler who has followed the ongoing case being made by the Department of Justice against BP over the Deepwater Horizon spill certainly read the newspaper articles in early September littered with those two phrases. According to U.S District Judge Carl Barbier, who is presiding over the civil trial against the companies responsible for the largest oil spill in America’s history, BP committed a litany of negligent acts and used unsafe practices causing millions upon millions of barrels of oil to spill into the Gulf and subsequently across beaches, bays and marshes, some of which are oiled still.

How many millions are still to be determined by Barbier.  The Justice Department is making the case that 4.2 million barrels came through the bent drill pipe nearly one mile below the Gulf’s surface. BP, of course, says it’s responsible for about half that amount while maintaining the spill was a series of unfortunate accidents it had little control over.

The finding of gross negligence means BP’s penalties under the Clean Water Act will swell to $4,300 per barrel, making the determination of how many barrels were released of extreme importance in settling what the ultimate civil fine will total. The fine could have been as low as $1,100 a barrel had BP not cut so many corners with willful disregard for the safety of its workers and the health of the Gulf. If BP’s estimate for barrels spilled is accurate, the fine will be about $10 billion for its gross negligence. That total could be in excess of $18 billion if the Justice Department is right.

Image by NASA.

Barbier is expected to rule on the spill’s totals in early 2015, weeks before the five-year anniversary of the accident that took 11 men from their families and sent the Gulf’s ecosystem and economies into a tail spin from which some have yet to recover. That decision is being anxiously awaited by state and federal agencies, conservation groups and coastal communities because it will determine how much money the RESTORE Act Council, states, counties, parishes and research institutes will have to spend on ecosystem and economic restoration efforts.

Every milestone, public engagement opportunity, judge’s decision and project announcement is an opportunity to reflect and be reminded of how the Gulf’s anglers, commercial fishermen, business owners and communities got to this point. Those who revel in the Gulf’s recreational bounty and make their living off its resources don’t need to be told by a judge BP was grossly negligent. The images of oil-soaked pelicans, beaches and marshes and the ongoing uncertainty about the future of fisheries remain fresh in many memories. The wounds that have healed are likely to be reopened for some next April as media attention focuses on the state of the Gulf five years since gross negligence caused tragedy.

There is also opportunity to reflect on how so many concerned about the impacts of the oil spill and the decades of habitat loss in the Gulf joined together to implore Congress to make sure that the penalties from the spill came back to repair the ecosystems and communities damaged the most. Recreational fishing and hunting certainly suffered at BP’s hands, which is why so many sportsmen across the country united to push for passage of the RESTORE Act.

Trips were made to Washington by avid outdoorsmen to talk directly with Congressional staff. Businesses that support hunting and fishing joined arms and talked about how healthy habitats throughout the Gulf are essential for them to thrive and be capable of employing millions of Americans. Sportsmen’s organizations found common ground with environmental groups who also wanted spill fines to improve fishing habitat and restore ecosystems.

Despite Congressmen from outside the Gulf(even some in the region) and some state officials insisting the RESTORE Act had no chance of passing, hunters and fishermen leaned harder and harder until Congress made the prudent choice and passed the bill.

Image by Louisiana GOHSEP.

More than two years since the bill passed, the time has come again for hunters and fishermen to continue to be actively involved in the recovery and sustainability of the Gulf. The states are soliciting project ideas this fall that they can begin working on and can submit to the Restore Council for consideration for funding.

All of the projects and initiatives needed to make Gulf fishing better, from restoring marshes, mangroves and barrier islands to better management and science to education programs to needed repairs and expansion of docks, boat launches and artificial reefs are all eligible for funding. The states have asked for recommendations. They recognize how important recreational fishing is to coastal economies.

As the picture becomes clearer about how large the funding source may be, there is certainly time for recreational fishermen to reflect and appreciate the work it took to secure the funds. However, the harder task is ensuring the needs of fish and fishermen are addressed with those funds.

Report from the Gulf

The fourth anniversary of the start of the BP Gulf oil spill passed in April with relatively little fanfare.

Satellite image of the Gulf oil spill on June 7, 2010.
Photo courtesy of NASA Goddard Flight Center.

Certainly there were some very important reports circulated in the media regarding the detrimental impacts of oil on larval fish, especially tuna, in the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico. And the Coast Guard recently announced it was ending the active cleanup phase of the recovery effort and responding to oiling on a case-by-case basis, despite regular reports of oil showing up on Louisiana’s barrier island beaches. The Baton Rouge Advocate reported that more and more workers are commuting to jobs in coastal parishes in Louisiana rather than living in coastal communities, which are growing increasingly vulnerable to flooding from wetland loss, sea level rise and the fact that the land is sinking, something most in South Louisiana have surely noticed on area roads during rush-hour traffic.

Despite these reports ringing alarms along the Gulf Coast, where post-oil spill and post-hurricane realities are ever present, the national spotlight will likely not focus on the oil spill again until next year when its fifth anniversary coincides with the 10th anniversary of the landfalls of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

While many of the larger national news outlets passed on the in-depth examinations of the health of the Gulf and its residents this year, Smithsonian.com published an article that examined the impacts of the spill, attempting to distill fact from rumor and portray as accurate a picture possible of the Gulf of Mexico in April 2014 versus the Gulf of four years ago.

The article illustrated the impacts of hydrocarbons on larval fish such as bluefin and blackfin tuna, though it did not report that scientists and researchers know for certain that those impacts will have long-term detrimental effects on the populations of those fish. Scientists simply don’t know that yet and will need more time to ascertain that information. The article further explained key forage species, especially menhaden, had gone through enough life cycles for scientists to reasonably conclude that their collapse was unlikely, though not out of the realm of possibilities.

The article also quoted oil-spill experts who attested the oil released into the Gulf was a lighter, more volatile hydrocarbon than what was spilled by the Exxon Valdez in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989 – and it was released into a warmer environment with more micro-organisms in it to help dissipate and consume it. However, despite the ability of the Gulf’s warmer, highly-oxygenated climate to consume oil, once it reached the irregular, marshy shorelines of Louisiana’s coast, the oil was trapped in vegetation and mud – and likely will stay there for generations.

All of these findings, for the most part, had been reported before the piece in Smithsonian.com was published, though it was very helpful to have them all summed up in one tidy, well-researched article, especially as news of the spill’s aftermath has been pushed farther to the back of newspapers and magazines and off the home pages of most news websites.

Of all the points made in the article, one that stood out the most is the fact that the spill did not happen in a pristine environment. The Gulf, like many other coastal ecosystems across the world, has experienced more than its share of habitat loss, poor water quality and man-made and natural disasters.

Efforts to contain rivers from flooding and maintain them for navigation have disrupted vital sediment deposits needed to maintain wetlands that serve as fish nursery grounds and filters for nutrients from agriculture and urban runoff. Over-harvest and poor water quality, including nutrient loading and saltwater intrusion, have limited oyster and scallop production.

Poor water quality also can be blamed for the loss of historic sea grass beds, especially in Florida and Texas. Some places are getting too much freshwater and at the wrong times of the year, while others are simply not getting enough freshwater due to upstream diversions. Since scientists did not have a wealth of knowledge about Gulf fisheries before the spill, it’s difficult for them to draw specific conclusions about what the impacts of the spill are and could be.

None of this is intended to suggest that people do not have their place in the Gulf’s ecosystems. Rather, it is meant to point out that policymakers, lawmakers, scientists and Gulf residents must seize the opportunity to address the impacts and make the Gulf a better, more sustainable ecosystem. That opportunity comes in the form of the penalties that have been and will be paid to help repair the damages caused and exacerbated by the spill.

Efforts to restore coastal wetlands, oyster and sea grass beds; repair damages to coral reefs; return sediment flows back into the Mississippi River Delta and improve water quality across the Gulf are not just “feel good” stories. They are essential to making the Gulf’s fisheries and coastal communities sustainable.

More than 3.5 million anglers hold recreational fishing licenses from Florida through Texas (including the author).

More than 3.5 million anglers hold recreational fishing licenses from Florida through Texas. That number swells by as much as a million when those are included who take charter trips out of states that include the license as part of the charter fee. That fishing activity annually generates more than $10 billion throughout the Gulf. Without efforts to make the ecosystems on which the fish depend more sustainable, those recreational fishing dollars gradually go away, as do the fishing opportunities.

As Gulf-area law and policymakers devise ways to spend oil-spill recovery dollars on “economic development” as the money continues to trickle in, it’s important for the recreational fishing community to remind them the wisest investment is in the ecosystems that already make up a huge part of the area’s economy.

As marine fisheries legislation heats up, it’s time to revamp the federal management system

Congress is moving forward quickly to revise the federal act that governs our nation’s marine resources. The sportfishing and boating industries, along with recreational saltwater anglers, are stepping up efforts to ensure that their economic, social and conservation priorities are well represented.

As the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act reauthorization advances on Capitol Hill, Bass Pro Shops Founder Johnny Morris and Maverick Boats President Scott Deal, leaders in the recreational angling industry and co-chairmen of the Commission on Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Management, will present A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries at the National Press Club on March 26, 2014, from 9:30–10:30 a.m.

The report, introduced to fishing and boating industry stakeholders on Feb. 13, 2014, at the Progressive Miami International Boat Show, is receiving critical acclaim as an important step toward commonsense saltwater fisheries management. Now, with strong support from the boating and fishing community, the commission is taking the report to the Hill to work with Congress as the Magnuson-Stevens Act reauthorization proceeds.

The Morris-Deal Commission assembled an expert panel of state and federal agency administrators, researchers, industry representatives and economists to promote a proactive vision for saltwater fisheries management. The current Magnuson-Stevens Act does not sufficiently address this important use of our nation’s public fishery resources. The commission’s report addresses recreational fishing specifically and differentiates the economic, social and conservation needs from those of commercial fishing.

According to NOAA Fisheries, 11 million Americans recreationally fish in saltwater each year. These sportsmen and -women contribute more than $70 billion to the nation’s economy and $1.5 billion for on-the-ground conservation of aquatic resources and habitats.

Who:     Johnny Morris, founder and CEO, Bass Pro Shops
Scott Deal, president, Maverick Boats

When:   Wednesday, March 26, 9:30–10:30 a.m. EDT

Where:  Fourth Estate Room, The National Press Club
529 14th St. N.W., Washington, DC 20045

RSVP to Lauren Dunn, National Marine Manufacturers Association, at ldunn@nmma.org; or Mary Jane Williamson, American Sportfishing Association, at mjwilliamson@asafishing.org.

A Louisiana duck hunt: How sportsmen and conservation have restored a tradition

Louisiana duck hunters

The author and his father duck hunting in Louisiana. Photo courtesy of Chris Macaluso.

I love to duck hunt. If I was forced to pick the things I enjoy most about being a sportsman in Sportsman’s Paradise, they would be catching speckled trout on topwater baits, battling big mangrove snapper on the reefs and rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, pitching jigs and soft plastics against the cypress trees in the Atchafalaya Basin for largemouths – and hunting ducks in the marshes and swamps across South Louisiana.

This past season, my dad and I were invited to join a group of longtime, passionate, Bayou State outdoorsmen in Pecan Island. The community, which is not really an island, consists of a handful  of mostly elevated homes, hunting camps and a few businesses stuck smack-dab between the seemingly endless expanse of rice and crawfish farms of Southwest Louisiana’s “Cajun Prairie” and the fresh and brackish marshes to the south that eventually give way to the Gulf.

Hunters venturing to Pecan Island enjoy the best of the habitat provided both by agriculture and Mother Nature, with ducks and geese by the hundreds of thousands piling into fields and marshes to feed on a variety of flora and fauna. While I had hunted many times in flooded fields to the north and west, it was my first venture to Pecan Island, one of North America’s true “duck meccas.”

My dad and I were assigned a marsh hunt for the morning. After a short and chilly pre-dawn boat ride, we arrived at the pit blind, camouflaged with native Roseau cane and wax myrtle on the northern edge of a shallow pond loaded with submerged aquatic vegetation and teeming with bird activity.

The sunrise was spectacular. The decoys soon were buzzing with bluewing and greenwing teal. Our guide’s dog worked without a hiccup, and we shot just badly enough to allow us to hunt past 7:30 when the mallards and gadwalls started to work. It’s a day that my dad and I will long remember. However, without the aggressive work to restore that marsh over the last decade-plus, that day never would have happened.

As is the case with most hunts or fishing trips, half the enjoyment comes from the story swapping and talk of the good ol’ days with fellow sportsmen, though my “good ol’ days” don’t stretch near as deep into the past as many. The night before our hunt, Pecan Island hunter-historians recounted the 1980s and ’90s when they wondered if they were going to lose their precious marsh forever.

Habitat changes precipitated by efforts to drain nearby wetlands for agriculture, construction of canals to facilitate oil and gas exploration, and saltwater intrusion were limiting sediment distribution, killing grasses and making marshes more vulnerable to subsidence and hurricane storm surges.

Open water led to increased wave action, causing more open water. Without grass to filter sediment and break up waves, the water became increasingly turbid, further inhibiting grass growth and creating an environment far less fecund and hospitable for both the migrating waterfowl and the fish and crustaceans seeking nursery grounds and protection.

The salvation for the marsh, the reason ducks descended into that shallow grassy pond all morning, came from a state and federal effort paid for by the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act to build coastal habitat projects across Louisiana’s coast over the last 25 years. Louisiana’s Department of Natural Resources worked with the National Marine Fisheries Service in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as part of that larger effort, to build a series of marsh terraces and introduce more freshwater to keep the salt at bay, or more specifically, in the bay. The terraces, best described as a series of low, linear sediment piles, quickly reduced insidious wave action, helped sediments fall out of the water column and encouraged the return of native grasses. The project was a bargain as well, with more than 3,500 acres of terraces built with less than $3 million.

Marsh terraces certainly aren’t a wide-spread, long-term answer to the ever-present and drastic coastal land loss in Louisiana. A variety of projects and initiatives have been prescribed and must be utilized simply to sustain what remains of Louisiana’s coast, much less reverse the habitat loss and actually see new wetlands. But, in the case of Pecan Island, one project helped extend the life of a productive habitat for several decades in an area where few other options existed.

Last year, as I worked with the Coastal Conservation Association, Center for Coastal Conservation and American Sportfishing Association to host workshops with fellow anglers, charter captains, scientists and researchers and other conservation groups across the five Gulf States to identify habitat restoration projects to restore, enhance and sustain Gulf fisheries, I quietly celebrated that many of the habitat projects discussed for fish, especially the effort to comprehensively restore the Mississippi River Delta, also benefit a host of other wildlife like ducks. After all, how could I go on a “cast and blast” trip to hunt ducks in the morning and fish for redfish and speckled trout in the afternoon in Buras if there isn’t quality habitat to do both?

The projects identified in the workshops are the basis for a report released by the TRCP last fall titled: “Gulf of Mexico Recreational Fisheries: Recommendations for Restoration, Recovery and Sustainability.” Proudly, I can say that my fellow sportsmen used the workshops and the report to champion a host of efforts that should lead to better science, management and habitat for saltwater fish using oil spill recovery penalties. We are taking their recommendations back to federal and state decision makers who are determining how to spend the money.

Quality habitat is the tie that binds all sportsmen to each other and to the land, no matter where they fish or hunt. Without a concerted effort to conserve, protect, enhance and expand that habitat, like many of the projects recommended by Gulf anglers aim to do, the bind is certain to break.

Learn more about sportsmen’s recommendations for rehabilitating recreational fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico.

Lessons Learned Fishing for Red Snapper

Talking about fishing is great but it doesn’t hold a candle to actually getting on the water and catching fish.

After a month spent traveling to each of the five Gulf  states and asking fishermen to recommend the kinds of habitat enhancement projects and scientific data needed to make our fishing better, it was nice to jump aboard my buddy Capt. Peace Marvel’s new 31-foot catamaran along with a handful of other fishing junkies and head down river out of Venice, La.

Kirk Rhinehart, avid angler and biologist; wrote Louisiana’s coastal restoration master plan.

The crew and I had three goals. The first was to catch a lot of red snapper with a variety of baits on light tackle. The second was to get as much incredible footage as possible to make for a good episode of Louisiana Sportsman TV to air later in the summer. The third was to discuss TRCP’s work with its sportfishing partners to improve recreational fishing habitat and opportunities in the Gulf and beyond. We succeeded on all fronts.

Exchanging fishing stories along the way and eyeing a couple of stray thunderstorms lingering right off the mouth of the river, the 25-minute trek out of South Pass passed in a blink. Ten minutes after clearing the last channel marker, we had lines in the water and were reeling in beautiful eight to 15 pound red snapper.

The cameras rolled. The rods doubled. Smiles abounded and 10 red snapper quickly came over the gunwale.

Chris Macaluso and a snapper caught in 90 ft. of water less than two miles from the mouth of the Mississippi River.

We were fishing a ledge in about 90 feet. The water on the surface was dirtied by the spring rains from the Midwest pushing their way down the river but the massive school of snapper could be clearly seen on the sonar about 20 feet under the boat. More than 25 red snapper came to the boat after eating everything from cut bait to butterfly jigs and soft plastic grubs.

Capt. Peace then pointed the boat east in search of mangrove snapper and bigger red snapper at the South Pass 70 Block, a set of oil and gas platforms in 300 feet of water famous for holding a variety of reef fish as well as big blackfin tuna and wahoo at certain times of the year.

Free-lining chunks of cut menhaden, we quickly hooked into several sizeable mangrove snapper including an impressive 10.6 pounder as well as the rest of our 14 red snapper limit. Mixed in were a couple of 40-50 pound amberjack, two slightly-too-small cobia and a bruising 40-pound gag grouper. The AJ’s, cobia and gag all went back to swim another day. The snapper were destined for the grill.

The trip covered nearly every subject discussed throughout the five Gulf restoration workshops:

Red Snapper:

Clearly, red snapper are abundant in the northern Gulf, something all researchers and fishermen alike agreed upon. Still, there is so much uncertainty in the data regarding stock sizes, catch-and-release mortality and actual angler effort that red snapper seasons have become ever shorter over the last several years.

This year, Gulf anglers get just 28 days to harvest red snapper. Without a judge’s ruling that forced a uniform season for all Gulf States, Louisiana fishermen would have had just nine days from NOAA to catch and keep the highly-prized, hard-fighting, crimson delicacies in federal waters.

Lack of data and improving survival rates:

The same lack of data restricting red snapper harvest forced the release of the two amberjack that wore me out that day. The one that hit the free-lined chunk on the surface swam away with little effort after a bruising 15 –minute light tackle fight. The one that came from 200 feet down had to be vented and revived to be able to return to depth.

Reducing the impact of reeling reef fish up from the depths, technically called barotrauma, was discussed at length at the workshops. Finding the best methods to improve survival rates of fish brought up from the deep and getting more anglers involved can hopefully increase the access recreational anglers have to harvesting more reef fish.

Habitat:

Catching abundant red snapper and other reef denizens on both natural and man-made structures illustrated well the role that both play for the fish and the fishermen. Anglers across the northern Gulf fish rigs and artificial reefs extensively but much is still unknown about what materials make the best reefs and where it’s best to locate the structures. Meanwhile, federal energy policies are forcing the rapid removal of oil and gas platforms with little regard for the fish or their habitat.

The TRCP is working with its partners to try and find solutions to all of these issues. And, it’s very rewarding to be working with federal and state agencies to ensure wise investments of oil spill recovery dollars coming to the Gulf in order to find those solutions and make sportfishing sustainable well into the future.

The chance to experience what we’re all working to sustain has its rewards as well.

Saving the Delta from Disaster

I’m a very lucky guy.

I hit the fisherman’s jackpot when I was born, the son of an outdoor writer who dwelt in the expanses of marshes and swamps, bays, lakes and barrier islands of south Louisiana aptly named “sportsman’s paradise.” My dad rarely went hunting or fishing without me and my brother in the truck.

Some of my fondest memories will always be of standing, fishing rod in hand, on the deck of our modest powder blue, 15-foot bass boat. The boat didn’t go fast or look pretty, but it managed to bring us back to the dock with plenty of speckled trout and redfish for dinner.

A couple of times each year we would head offshore on the 65-foot charter boats out of Port Fourchon to fish for snapper, grouper, king mackerel and whatever else was swimming around the rigs and reefs. My dad always made a big deal when we caught a red snapper, sneaking the first few into a small ice chest he kept away from the crowd to make sure we got a couple to take home for dinner.

Taking the big boat rides to the deep water and watching the older fishermen muscle in amberjack or an occasional shark was an adventure. But those days were no more special than the ones spent simply walking the surf at Grand Isle, casting top water Mirr-O-Lures and gold spoons at speckled trout as they busted shrimp on the Gulf of Mexico’s lightly rippled surface.

As I got older, I began paying close attention to the changes happening to my childhood fishing haunts and my ability to access the fish. My marshes were washing away and sinking. Bayou banks and marsh ponds where I had caught redfish and watched teal fly past by the thousands became open water seemingly overnight, while more and more of Louisiana’s coasts fell victim to saltwater intrusion brought on by manmade canals and the isolation of the Mississippi River’s water and sediment from its delta.

I watched commercial fishermen use purse seine nets off Louisiana’s coast to harvest brood stock redfish by the hundreds of thousands in the late 1980s. At times so many fish were brought to the dock that they rotted in the baking late-summer heat before they could even be processed. Recreational fishermen lost an entire year of fishing for reds, and limits were severely curtailed as state biologists scrambled to recover stocks.

I watched as regulations on my dad’s beloved red snapper became ever more restrictive, limiting access and breeding distrust of fisheries managers at all levels of government among recreational anglers.

I watched hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike carve up my beloved marshes and barrier islands and devastate towns from one end of Louisiana’s coast to the other. And I saw the region get slugged in the gut again two years later by an oil spill that coated my speckled trout surf and took away an entire spring and summer of fishing from Gulf anglers.

My state did not deserve these injuries and injustices. My fellow fishermen across the Gulf didn’t deserve them either.

Recreational fishing in the Gulf has a $10 billion impact on the region’s economy every year. But more importantly, it builds relationships between friends, families, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters. It teaches us how to respect our surroundings and where our food comes from. It teaches us to appreciate a perfect sunrise and how to make others appreciate it as well.

Limiting access to the fishery, whether due to habitat loss, manmade disasters or unnecessarily restrictive regulation not only threatens communities and jobs; it also jeopardizes our ability to raise the next generation of sportsmen and conservationists. This trend of access loss for recreational anglers is happening not just in the Gulf of Mexico, but across our nation’s coasts.

We can do better. We must do better.

That’s why I am honored to have the opportunity to work with fishermen across the Gulf and throughout our coastal areas to try and unite those who want to make our fishing and our fisheries more sustainable. Fishermen must use their collective might to advance positive change, but we must reach consensus on what we want that change to look like – and we must be willing to compromise when needed.

My dad taught me well. Now that I have a son of my own, I’d like him to have the chance when he’s my age to remember the red snapper he caught and took home for dinner when he was 10. Join us in making this a reality.

Do you have a favorite stretch of coastline or a favorite fishing memory? Post it below.