Report from the Gulf

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  August 10, 2010

The family has been working these waters for eight generations, ever since Jean Joseph Voisin landed on a 16-mile barrier island south of Houma.

Steve and his brother Mike run a large oyster distributor with leases on some 10,000 acres of water stretching from Grand Isle about 200 miles west to Freshwater Bayou.

The BP spill has shut off access to 60 percent of that sprawling farm. But out here in Area 28, well west of the blowout, the reefs are open after a brief closure. And for Steve and Jarod, it almost feels like a normal day, battling the normal demons.

Heavy storms in the Midwest have brought a surge of fresh water down the Mississippi and out into the gulf. Too much fresh water can be lethal for the oysters and the Voisins are here, in part, to perform salinity checks.

Jarod scoops a bit of water to his mouth, swishes it about, and spits back into the gulf. "Any salt water?" Steve asks. "Any mermaids?"

Jarod reports a touch of salt. The real test is yet to come. Using a GPS system, Steve guides the boat to a portion of the family lease. His son dips a bamboo pole into the water to feel for the reef and any mud that might be smothering the oysters.

"Reef?" Steve asks.

"Reef," Jarod says.

"Clean?" Steve asks.

"Clean," Jarod says.

The younger Voisin drops a small, pyramid-shaped trawler made of rope and metal over the side and Steve drives in a slow, tight circle to scoop up his quarry.

Jarod pulls the trawler back on board and shakes a couple dozen oysters onto a bench at the rear of the boat. The Voisins sort through the catch. The dead, their shells slightly open, number about 20 percent in this spot. Not bad.

These leases are just recovering — not from Katrina, which passed to the east, but from Rita and a series of storms that followed, dumping huge amounts of fresh water on the mollusks below.

Jarod remembers dragging the trawler two years ago and hearing what sounded like a vast, underwater tangle of beer bottles — hundreds of dead, open-shelled oysters rattling up against each other.

It's been a tough run these last few years — "a different sense of things," Steve says, "a sense of peril."

But the Voisins have survived, even prospered, until now. Dealing with uncertainty is a way of life out here, after all; a tropical storm or a stiff west wind can make or break an oyster season.

The spill is something new, though — an unknown. The damage wrought by Katrina and Rita could, at least, be catalogued and repaired; a path to recovery divined. No one is sure what the long-term effects of the crude might be.

Heading into shore, Steve and Jarod pass a small brood of pelicans sitting atop an oil platform and a set of buoys marking blue crab traps.

The news, for today, is good. The oyster kills seem manageable. And if there are no major storms in the next couple of weeks, Steve says, the family might be able to salvage the season.

But the gulf's fickle nature is never far from mind.

"When one oyster dies, why don't they all?" Steve says, as the boat nears Vermilion Bay. "It's hard to figure."

David Scharfenberg can be reached at dscharfenberg@phx.com.

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