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Banding Together for Waterfowl

Faces of the Gulf Coast: Frank Jurisich

A Louisiana oyster fisherman shares his oil spill story
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by Chris Jennings

Author's Note: I traveled to the Louisiana Gulf Coast recently to meet with waterfowl hunters and conservationists who could be affected by the oil spill. The goal wasn't to seek out oil globs—it was to show what's at stake in Louisiana waters. I learned that the true cost of this spill could be a way of life. This is part two in a three-part series.

Frank JurisichFrank Jurisich is a third-generation oyster fisherman, a DU member and a waterfowl hunter. He and his brother work out of Empire Marina in Empire, Louisiana, a quiet fishing community that is normally bustling with fishing vessels and fishermen this time of year. As Frank fires up the 250-horsepower outboard on his 20-foot Reno, he's not on his regular schedule; today he is heading out to his oyster leases to look for damage caused by the oil spill.

"We haven't been able to fish in three weeks," Jurisich explains over the roar of the engine and the cutting wind. He points out several shrimp boats rigged with oil-skimming booms.

The Reno cuts through Grand Bayou, heading north to Barataria Bay and eventually toward Grand Isle. The area is littered with white PVC poles marking thousands of oyster beds, which are usually teeming with fishermen raking in the popular mollusks. The lush marsh grasses along the shore seem to throw off a dark-green glow as ominous thunderclouds form in the distance. Jurisich knows these waters better than most; he has lived here, fished here, hunted here and works here on a daily basis.

"All this right along here used to be great duck holes," he says, pointing off to his right every few minutes. "Now they are gone, as the marsh here continues to disappear."

The conversation and thoughts of every fisherman along the coast are focused on the oil spill, but these are the same fishermen who rebuilt and relaunched their operations after Katrina. Even in the face of another disaster, Jurisich is not pointing the finger at anyone.

"If you live down here, you either fish or you work on an oil rig," he explains. "That's just the way it is and that's what drives this local economy."

Jurisich continues to whip the boat's wheel as he cuts through places like Bay Au Fer and Billet Bay and runs alongside Rattlesnake Bayou. Shrimp boats with oil boom, barges with oil vacuum trucks, and air boats zip past.

He pulls the boat in closer to shore in Barataria Bay and points to a barge where two vacuum trucks sit idle. Under the barge is one of Jurisich's oyster beds, and when the boat slows to an idle, the smell of oil fills the air.

"That's what we've got, right there," he says as he points to a glob of oil the size of a Volkswagen. "Look at it, man—it's everywhere."

Like mats of weeds or kelp, the oil globs can be seen in every direction. The shoreline, unlike the crisp, green bayou Jurisich boated through to get here, is a black-and-brown mess. As the tides rise and fall, the oil is pushed farther into the marsh. The grasses, many pushed over, broken or dying, are coated with oil up to four feet from the water's surface.

"That's one thing most people don't expect: the color of it," he says as he inches the boat closer to the sludgy shoreline. "They are expecting that real black crude, but this stuff is a brown-orange color and is slimy rather than thick. It's nasty stuff."

Jurisich opens a disposable camera and begins snapping photos of the oil drifting across his oyster lease and the oily shoreline. He continues pointing out more of the drifting oil patches, on a collision course with anything and everything along the shoreline.

He whips the Reno around and heads for open water. More oil-boom-equipped shrimp boats dot the landscape, and Jurisich mentions that it seems as if everyone with an airboat is out today.

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