When Kenny LeFebvre is out of work, so are the two men who help him haul glistening blue crabs from the waters he's fished since he quit school at 14. So are his sister and brother-in-law, who sell him bait, buy back the catch, pack it up, then resell it to buyers who put it on dinner tables in Maryland.
And so are thousands of other families just like theirs in some of the world's richest fishing grounds, livelihoods in limbo as winds from exactly the wrong direction — the southeast — threaten to push an oil slick the size of Puerto Rico ever closer to the fragile, fingerlike bayous.
"I don't know what I'll do. I really don't," says LeFebvre, who unloaded 2,100 pounds of crab about 20 minutes before natural resource officials ordered the fishing zones in St. Bernard Parish closed. There was no sign of oil yet. Not even a whiff in the breeze. And the crabs had just started biting.
On Sunday, federal authorities banned commercial and recreational fishing over a wide swath of the Gulf of Mexico, from the mouth of the Mississippi to the Florida Panhandle, for at least the next 10 days. Now, the 600 traps LeFebvre dropped Friday morning will sit uncollected for weeks, he figures. Maybe months. Maybe years.
How he will support six children, ages 9 to 18, is beyond his ability to imagine.
"I'm 35. I ain't never drove a nail in my life. This is what I know, right here," he says. "We starved all winter, and we was just getting to where we was making money and getting back on our feet."
More than birds and fish lie in the path of the massive oil slick threatening the Gulf Coast from Florida to Texas: A centuries-old way of life that's endured dozens of hurricanes is now facing the possibility of environmental and economic disaster.
Water sustains the region's economy like blood in the body. Commercial and sport fishing businesses support dock services, tackle shops and gas stations. Restaurants are Louisiana's largest private-sector employer, with 140,000 workers and a direct annual economic impact of $5 billion. Wendy Waren, vice president of the Louisiana Restaurant Association, says nearly two-thirds of them serve some type of seafood.
Then there are some of the busiest shipping ports in the world, moving oil from offshore rigs up the Mississippi and Midwestern grain out to sea to feed the rest of the world.
All are vital to world commerce and have a potential impact on consumer pocketbooks.
The Port of Gulfport in Mississippi is the nation's second-largest importer of green fruit, with Central American bananas from Chiquita and Dole accounting for 74 percent of its imported cargo in 2007.
The Port of New Orleans handled 73 millions tons of cargo in 2008, including coffee from South America and steel from Japan, Russia, Brazil and Mexico. Three cruise ships also dock there, handling more than 600,000 passengers a year.
Upriver is the Port of South Louisiana, the nation's busiest with 224 million tons of cargo a year — mostly grain and other agricultural commodities, and chemicals from the scores of plants that line the river.
When a tanker and a tugboat collided near New Orleans two years ago, oil cascaded downriver and some 200 ships stacked up, unable to move for several days while the Coast Guard had the vessels scrubbed. Millions of dollars were lost.
About 120 miles away in Ocean Springs, Miss., Paul Nettles worries about losses of his own. He and his partners at South Coast Paddling Co. started their kayaking business last August, taking tourists through inland salt marshes and to some of the barrier islands.
"We just spent all year advertising and marketing, and it's just now starting to pay off. If the whole summer is a wash, it could be devastating," says Nettles, 38, preparing to take a dozen highway contractors on a three-hour tour of Old Fort Bayou.
On tiny Grand Isle, which boasts Louisiana's only white sand beaches, the manager of the Island Paradise Suites is also fretting about what could happen this summer. Every weekend, says manager Penny Benton, there's a fishing rodeo that supports the bait shops, eateries and motels. The big one is the tarpon rodeo at the end of July, when so many people pack onto the 6-mile-long island that it takes two hours to drive from one end to the other.
"My worst fear is nobody wanting to come down because they can't fish, they can't shrimp, they can't do anything," says Benton, 45, who counts on her job at her aunt's inn to support her 8- and 12-year-old children. "I don't even want to think about that. I know I need to, but I don't want to."
"We're just praying. That's all we can do," she says. "Everybody's scared to death."
Recreational fishing draws some 6 million saltwater anglers a year, supports more than 300,000 jobs and contributes $41 billion dollars annually to the Gulf Coast economy, according to the American Sportfishing Association.
Louisiana is also America's top producer of shrimp, oysters, crabs, crawfish and alligators, shipping out 30 percent all the seafood in the lower 48 states, says Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board. That adds up to an economic impact of $2.4 billion a year.
Louisiana fishermen landed 90.4 million pounds of shrimp in 2008, or 44 percent of U.S. production, and 207 million pounds of oysters, or 36 percent of the U.S. total, Smith says. Any hiccup in production opens the door to foreign competition, which already accounts for 80 percent of the nation's seafood consumption.
Just as dangerous? Public perception.
The industry could face consumer misconceptions that all Louisiana products are unsafe, Smith says, even though any contaminated areas will be closed.
"The consumer needs to understand we will still have seafood production and have safe seafood production," he says.
Russell Prats, who owns Tino Mones Seafood in Delacroix, sells crabs to processors in Alabama. If he can't supply them, they will look elsewhere, maybe to imports. And they may not come back.
"Thousands and thousands of people's lives is at stake here. If that oil comes down and they shut us down, we're out of business," Prats says.
The fishing communities in lower St. Bernard Parish are tiny, quiet villages along a two-lane road, surrounded by marshes. Modest houses sit high on stilts, while travel trailers sit parked in the concrete foundations of homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina nearly five years ago. Here, white rubber boots are standard footwear, and the loudest noises come from idling boat engines, screaming seagulls and the unrelenting wind.
"How many years is it going to take to clean this up?" wonders fisherman Nicky Alfonso, unloading crates of crabs from his boat on Bayou Terre-aux-Boeufs. "How many years is it going to take for testing on the seafood, before it gets out of their systems? That's something none of us know."
"It's like a hurricane coming: You sit and you wait and see what's gonna happen," he says.
It's gotten steadily harder to make a living here, says 75-year-old Howard Serigne, a lifelong fisherman and a descendant of the Canary Islands settlers who moved into this part of Louisiana in the 1700s.
Everyone in Serigne's family makes a living on the water, but they used to have more options. Once upon a time, he says, they could trap fur-bearing animals like otter and nutria, and sell the pelts. They could catch and sell species of fish now available only to sport fishermen. The number of boats on the water has grown, and the amount of land protecting the fisheries has shrunk.
Serigne had 160 acres in Plaquemines Parish and 64 in St. Bernard before Katrina; now, he says, there's barely any land left.
Larry McKinney, director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies in Corpus Christi, Texas, says flood control levees have diverted the sediment that builds wetlands across the gulf, while canals cut to reach oil and gas production sites have aggravated erosion. Mineral extraction is causing subsidence, or the gradual lowering of the land.
The wetlands are "in a state of rapid degradation," McKinney says, with 80 percent of the nation's coastal land loss occurring in Louisiana. The state loses up to 25,000 acres, per year, he says — the equivalent of a football field every 20 minutes.
And now this.
"A hurricane takes your house, and it messes up the marsh and that, but it heals pretty quick," says fisherman Tracy Alfonso. "But nobody knows what's gonna happen with the oil. It's never happened before.
"It's like a farmer that can't grow a crop," he says. "How long can you last without work, before they take your house and your car or whatever you work with?"
Wayne and Lisa Ledet, who own Doris' Seafood in Delacroix, earn $500-$1,000 a day when the fishing is good, packing up crabs, oysters and shrimp for buyers in Baltimore. They started their business after Katrina, invested more than $500,000 and just bought an $80,000 ice machine. Some $15,000 worth of bait will go unused because the fishermen are grounded.
Now, the couple is looking at the prospect of taking food stamps to get by. If the shutdown lasts more than a few weeks, they won't be able to pay their bills.
"That's it," Wayne says. "It's gonna be over with."
His 21-year-old nephew Shawn Platt, who dropped out of junior high to become a fisherman, wonders how his growing family will survive.
"I don't know how to do nothing else," he says. "I got a baby gonna be born any day now, and I don't know what I'm gonna do."
Associated Press writers Alan Sayre in New Orleans and Maria Burnham in Ocean Springs, Miss., contributed to this report.
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