Margaret Curole was a commercial shrimper on the Louisiana Gulf Coast for almost 20 years. She now serves on the executive board of the Commercial Fishermen of America, and is the North American coordinator of the World Forum of Fish Harvesters and Fish Workers, an NGO that works with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization to protect the rights of fishing communities around the world.
Looking beyond the immediate crisis of the oil spill, I asked her: are we ever going to be able to eat fish again?
“I don’t know,” she answered. She believes the spill has global implications. The food chain, for example, is at grave risk as plankton and the other small creatures that form the base of the food chain ingest petrochemicals. Small fish eat them and larger fish eat the smaller ones. The toxins end up on our dinner plates–that is, provided the fish themselves survive.
Curole is an executive chef. Part of her job for the Commercial Fishermen of America is to showcase American seafood, “but my specialty, of course, is Gulf of Mexico seafood. I give cooking demonstrations and explain why you should eat really good quality wild-caught seafood from the coast of Louisiana.” That’s clearly not a speech she’ll be able to give for a long while.
“I’m cooking for 2,500 people in Washington, D.C. in 11 days,” Curole continued, “and I don’t have any [Gulf] seafood to cook. I’ve got seafood coming in from Alaska, I’ve got some coming in from the East Coast. Where the shrimp is supposed to be— which is my signature dish, with a sugar cane glaze—” Curole paused. “Where the shrimp is supposed to be,” she said, “I decided I’m going to have a large empty bowl with a sign that says, ‘Do you want your Sugar Cane Shrimp? Go ask BP where it’s at and when it will come back.’”
We discussed a few of the myriad threats that the spill poses to the ecosystem. “What about the rain?” Curole asked. “Are we going to start having toxic rain?” She noted that “BP was ordered over a week ago to stop using that dispersant [Corexit, a particularly toxic product] by the EPA, and they haven’t stopped.” Will the dispersant evaporate from the surface of the ocean and return with the rain? As of June 2, approximately 993,000 gallons of dispersant had been deployed on the oil spill.
Another huge problem is that there is really no effective way to clean the marsh, which Cajuns call the “trembling prairie.”
“We say it in French,” said Curole, “the prairie tremblant. It’s reeds with a very closely knit root system [which] might only go a foot, two feet deep. It looks like solid land, but it’s not. We’re already facing in our area the largest coastal land loss in the world due to coastal erosion. [Wherever] that reed marsh dies, it’s going to break off and float away. So the entire topography of our region is going to change because of this. Because once those reeds die, they will not come back. It’s mind-boggling.” The reed marshes are the first line of defense against hurricanes.
Given the devastation wreaked by the oil spill, I asked Curole how she now feels about offshore drilling.
“I’m asked that question a lot,” she replied. “We walk a razor’s edge, because everybody you know works in one field or the other. They’re either fishermen or they’re oil. If you take away all oil drilling, we might as well turn the lights off, roll the carpets up, and leave.” It’s a personal issue: “My husband—my friends—our entire economy is based on oil or fishing. If you can’t fish, and you can’t work in oil, there is no other industry here.”
I asked if she favors reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. Curole responded enthusiastically.
“I would love to see us having an energy policy that favors people choosing alternative energies. I’ve had the luxury with my job to be able to go to 25 different countries in the last six years. In Portugal, for example, they get such great incentives to be able to put solar hot water heaters and wind turbines—you walk in a mall, and there’s a store that sells those things. It’s encouraged.”
Curole and her husband decided to “go totally solar with the house a year and a half ago.” But they couldn’t do it. Outfitting their house with the number of solar panels they required “would cost us more money than our house is worth,” she explained. “I can’t afford to double my mortgage because I want to go green.”
Tentatively, I asked Curole what she thinks about the future.
“We have no idea,” she began. One of her best friends has a baby whose first birthday coincided with the oil spill. “She cries every day: ‘What kind of world did I bring this baby into? Am going to be able to raise my baby here?’ Her husband’s a tugboat captain too. ‘Is my husband going to be able to keep working? Are we going to have to move?’”
And then, the conversation turned, as this no-nonsense woman—a tough, gritty survivor—looked back.
“You ask anybody who grew up here what your very best memories are in your life—it’s not going to be the trip that you took to Europe, it’s not going to be when I got to go to Iceland.” Curole told me about her daughter living for three years in the marsh with her grandparents, hours away from civilization. “I think that’s why she’s so level-headed: she never had a TV. She grew up with nature.” Curole’s voice began to crack. “My best memory is my daughter standing in that marsh on the back deck of a shrimp boat feeding her little pet coon the crab that she caught with a net.
“My best memory is my husband and I—I’m going to cry—my husband and I in our little camper on the beach at six o’clock in the morning.” Curole spoke with difficulty. “We waded through waist-high water to go fishing. We’d throw a line, catch a fish and fry it that afternoon. That’s my best memory. That’s the memory of everybody here. And it’s gone.” She was overcome for a few moments. “It’s like my soul is being ripped apart.”