I visited the Gulf as a life-long environmental activist, having started several marine and coastal protection organizations and worked on a number of other oil spills.  In the first few weeks of this spill, while still in Maine, I had worked with other oil spill-experienced water keepers to support the work of our five newer keeper programs in the Gulf through daily mentoring conference calls.   

While in the Gulf, we visited diverse fishing communities-Vietnamese, Native American, black, Cajun and white-members of which all expressed the same concerns: How will we make a living, feed our families, meet our boat and house payments and will we ever be able to fish again? The beginnings of this tragedy were evident in the meetings we had with fishermen, restaurant owners and community activists throughout the region, shrimpers, oystermen and other Gulf fishermen who produce as much as one-third of America’s seafood. In Louisiana alone, 27,000 people were employed in the seafood industry, and throughout the region tourism is a giant economic engine that employs many whose future will be affected by the spill. Although it is too early to begin calculating the economic, environmental, social and community damage from this crisis, it is safe to assume that the impacts will be devastating and very long lasting,

Oil spills wreak environmental and social havoc over long periods of time. What is happening in the Gulf is not just about oil. There are lessons to be learned about communities and their relationship with the natural resources they depend on.

There was widespread anger at BP and the government, not only because of the spilled oil, but also for the manner in which people felt that BP had taken advantage by offering only minimal salaries to responders and small payments for use of boats as well as their apparent disregard for public health consequences of contact with oil and its fumes by failing to require or offer protective clothing and respirators for cleanup workers. In some communities, like the Vietnamese, emotions were especially heated over the fact that the oil cleanup pay offered for day labor and boat day charters was often half the rate for English-speakers, likely because of insensitivity to the need for translators.

Job loss, stress-related public health and mental health impacts from this spill are to be anticipated.  In the smaller Exxon Valdez spill, increases in drug and alcohol abuse and domestic violence appeared within the first year. Six years after that spill, a survey indicated 50-65 percent of fishermen still displayed medical and emotional problems, and more than 40 percent demonstrated symptoms of severe depression.

In the Gulf, I expected people to be upset about oiled birds, coastal wetlands and beaches but I was not prepared for the personal pain, for the stories, such as the one in this issue of The Working Waterfront, of Mike Roberts reduced to tears by the appearance of oil in the bay where he has shrimped and fished for 35 years and his anguish over how this crisis will effect his family’s way of life and his grandchildren’s vocations. I wasn’t ready for the fear for their future expressed in the Native American community we visited where members of the Atakapa tribe have lived and fished their own bayou for shrimp and oysters for over 100 years.

Oil spills wreak environmental and social havoc over long periods of time. What is happening in the Gulf is not just about oil. There are lessons to be learned about communities and their relationship with the natural resources they depend on. In the few weeks since my return, the Gulf BP oil spill has become the largest in this nation’s history and continues to grow in breadth, depth and impacts. Each day we are confronted with media coverage of oiled birds, coastal wetlands, beaches and aggrieved local politicians, but little about the personal and community impacts. While it may be too soon to be witnessing widespread social disarray, it will undoubtedly appear. But in contrast to Alaska where dysfunctional community and individual interactions might have been mitigated by more effective social networks, there is reason to hope that work of the Gulf Coast Fund will help the people of the Gulf cope with the their oil spill. 

The people of Maine and its Gulf should pay close attention what’s happening in the Gulf of Mexico. There are many similarities. Both regions are made up of small communities that are highly dependent on fishing and tourism. Their economies and ways of life can easily be disrupted by major events that are beyond the control of their citizens.            

The collapse of the lobster population in midcoast and downeast Maine or a tanker/ferry collision at the mouth of Penobscot Bay could have devastating and long lasting economic and social impacts. And although organizations such as the Island Institute and Coastal Enterprises have been creating and sustaining economic development and social networks for decades, it remains to be seen whether they have created a viable crisis intervention system for Maine.

Michael Herz founded the San Francisco Baykeeper program, was a member of the Alaska Oil Spill Commission following the Exxon spill and has studied oil spills in Maine and California. He is a resident of Damariscotta and serves on the boards of Maine Rivers and the Sheepscot Valley Conservation Association.