After Oil Spill, Shrimpers Hope For Blessed Season

April 19, 2011

Debbie Elliott

Monsignor Frederic Brunet blesses the boat the Maycie Brooke before climbing aboard the vessel to begin the boat blessing parade, in Chauvin, La.

To mark the one-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon rig spill, NPR revisits a Cajun family living on the fragile edge of Louisiana. Last spring, the Chauvins, who have made shrimping their livelihood for five generations, made a tough decision to help BP clean up the oil spill.

This past year has taken its toll on Kim and David Chauvin and their family's shrimping business. But earlier this month, they prepared for a brand new shrimp season.

Their community's annual Blessing of the Fleet is the traditional launch of shrimp season, when boats parade down the bayou and are blessed with a sprinkling of holy water.

The day before the ceremony, Kim Chauvin is in her kitchen, unfurling a huge banner that will go high atop the family's boat. She says the slogan on the banner — Together We Shall Overcome — wasn't the first thing that came to her mind.

"I really was going to do Nightmare On BP Street," she says. But she says if they are seen losing hope, it would send the wrong message to the dozens of other shrimpers in their namesake Chauvin, La. Many of them unload their catch on the dock behind Kim and David Chauvin's house on Bayou Lil Caillou.

The future is so uncertain after the oil spill, the local Catholic priest almost canceled this year's blessing.

Kim Chauvin says they are all tired but need to come together now more than ever, hence the slogan on the banner.

"With, Jesus in the clouds looking over the boat as it's trawling," Chauvin says. "This is totally like believing in God and trawling. Because you have to have faith you gonna go out there and catch something."

Responding To The Spill

At the ceremony, dozens of boats of all sizes line the Bayou, all adorned with colorful flags and decorations. The monsignor blessing the boats is riding on a vessel decked out in black and gold, the New Orleans Saints colors. People dressed as green swamp monsters ride on another.

There are also visual reminders of what the small town has endured, like a poster on the Chauvin's boat of former BP Executive Tony Hayward in his yacht asking for his life back.

The people in Chauvin, La., want their livelihoods back.

David Chauvin is in the captain's chair on the 73-foot shrimp trawler, the Mariah Jade, named after his daughter. He says most of the boats out on the bayou were built by the men running them, just like him.

"I built this one 14 years ago," he says. "And when I say built, I mean built from scratch, from the first piece of one-inch by six-inch, the keel."

It was also one of the first boats to respond to the BP oil spill.

"I can still remember the phone call," he says. "It was almost a year ago today."

A contractor for BP was on the line, wanting Chauvin to assemble a fleet of large shrimp boats to clean up oil. But at the time, news reports indicated no oil had spilled.

"So that was my first question to him, I said, 'What oil?' He says, 'The riser pipe is disconnected from the drilling ship.' He says, 'The blowout preventer has failed.' And he says, 'This is going to be bad,'" Chauvin recalls.

Chauvin agreed to help, pulling together what was dubbed Task Force One — local fisherman in a grueling battle to capture the oil that was gushing unchecked into their shrimping grounds. They worked from April through September.

His nephew, Chance McCorkel, 25, captained one of Chauvin's boats for the cleanup, what he calls their "missions."

"I don't miss it," McCorkel says. "The oil itself was gross. It stunk, Got all over everything. It was hard to not let it get all over us. It was thick."

The trawlers traded their shrimp nets for giant absorbent boom they would pull along the Gulf to soak up the oil.

"Easiest way to explain this is it looked like giant tampons strung out for about a hundred foot," he says.

He calls it a surreal experience.

"It was just weird to be riding around, no nets on your boats, no ropes on your boats," he says. "You constantly hear noise, it was just too quiet. All you heard was your engine and your radios. Don't feel right."

A Long Winter

The ropes and chains and nets are back on the Mariah Jade, and she's got a fresh coat of paint like most of the boats David Chauvin sees along the bayou.

"Everybody's out today," Chauvin says. "It's been a long winter."

If they're not riding on the boats, people are lined on the banks waving at the passing parade of vessels. Chauvin says the community needs this relief.

"This has been, probably by far, in all the years I've been fishing, the most stressful year of my life," Chauvin says. "It's a fact that you have to live with when you are a commercial fisherman – the uncertainty — but we've never seen where you couldn't go to work."

Most of the Gulf is back open for fishing, and word is the white shrimp crop is going to be a good one. But just in case, the Chauvins' pastor, Jeff Loyd, seeks higher intervention.

"Lord, we pray for the shrimp harvest this year, heavenly Father," Loyd prays. "That you make the harvest plentiful, heavenly Father. And the price for the shrimp right, heavenly Father. May the fuel be the right cost this year, heavenly Father."

Family and friends gathered around on the Mariah Jade shout a collective "Amen!" and cheer.

Looking Ahead

The Chauvins have a lot riding on this new season. BP has not paid them for last year's losses or for the damage to their fleet from working the spill. Kim Chauvin says it's so unfair.

"We got out there and worked our butts off to mitigate BP's damages," she says.

For the first time in years, she's had to borrow money to get back in business, and they're trying to sell one of their three large vessels.

"It's a scary thing when you're looking at your future and you don't have a clue and you don't have a grasp on it," says Kim Chauvin. "You're walking in blind, and you're about to spend money that you don't have in a way of continuing on with the business, because this is what we've done all our lives."

That's the Chauvin way, and why she says they could not have canceled this year's Blessing of the Fleet.

"We need to stand up where our heritage is and really give something for our kids to look forward to," she says.

No matter how hard the last year has been, Kim Chauvin says she has a responsibility to show her grandchildren that there is hope beyond tragedy.

This piece was produced for broadcast by Evie Stone. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.