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Gulf shrimpers pray for good season amid oil spill

SHARE Gulf shrimpers pray for good season amid oil spill

THERIOT, La. — Docked boats were bedecked with fluttering red, white and blue streamers and rainbows of balloons in a bayou-country, pre-shrimp season tradition known as the "Blessing of the Boats."

On the menu? Heaping trays of barbecued chicken, smoked sausage and potato salad — but no crabs or shrimp.

Blame the BP oil spill. The company has plugged the leak and announced Sunday that cement sealing the busted oil well in the Gulf of Mexico had hardened, clearing the path for the final phase of drilling a relief well.

The future isn't so clear for fishermen and their families seeking blessings for a bountiful harvest and divine protection from the water's dangers. They are wondering if the waters will ever be the same again.

"I've had ice chests of shrimp in my freezer all my life," said Dita Dehart, 70, a lifelong area resident who was working on desserts in a back room of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, which has hosted the blessing on Bayou Dularge for more than 50 years. "I have none now."

Fishermen have suffered through the ever-changing scenario of on-again, off-again closures and a murky future ever since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20, killing 11 workers. BP said Sunday it may soon begin drilling the final 100 feet of a relief well.

Once the relief well intersects the broken well, more mud and cement will be pumped in for the "bottom kill" meant to seal the well for good.

However, the plugging of the well hasn't ended the uncertainty: Yes, the state technically set next Monday Aug. 16 as the opening for a fall shrimp season along the coast, but some waters will likely remain closed as federal authorities test the safety of the seafood.

"I got a boat that's ready," said Ravin Lacoste, 57. "But we don't know what's going to open up."

"It's open, it's closed, it's open it's closed," said Charles Lovell Jr., before he clambered aboard his shrimp boat to ferry the Rev. Jervis Burns up and down the bayou.

Burns first conducted a service for about 50 fishermen, their families and other parishioners of St. Andrews. The congregation gathered around him on the banks or watched from about a dozen shrimp and oyster boats, sheriff's patrol boats and other vessels that sat across a two-lane road from the church — a long, pitch-roofed white metal building nestled between two sprawling oaks, draped with Spanish moss.

Then he climbed aboard Lovell's shrimp boat to lead a water parade, during which he would bless other vessels docked along the bayou and then toss out a wreath memorializing fishermen who have died on the waters.

Scenes like this play out along coastal Louisiana throughout much of the year — fishermen and their families seeking a good harvest and divine protection .

"Hurricanes and high waters and all of that. And this year we had the BP oil spill," Burns said as he opened his bayou-side service.

Aside from uncertainty over when and where they'll be able to fish, fishermen are facing lingering doubts about the market, says Mike Dehart, 51, Lacoste's brother-in-law, who runs a shrimp dock just up the road. Demand, and the prices he could get for shrimp, shot up right after the spill, he said, as people rushed to get what they feared would be their last taste of Gulf seafood. But demand and prices dropped as the spill continued. "It's going to take a couple of years before things get back to normal," he said.

Behind him, heat shimmered off two huge black barbecue smokers. His sister Melissa Lacoste, 53, was helping organize the day's lunch — a fundraiser that would help pay to replace the church's recreation hall, destroyed in Hurricane Gustav two years ago. But they were preparing only 400 plates instead of the usual 700.

The lack of a recreation hall where people could sit comfortably was one reason. And, she said, crabs and shrimp are more popular than chicken, she added (although the 400 plates of chicken later sold out quickly).

"We're afraid with this BP stuff our fishermen's not going to be able to raise the money," Dita Dehart.

The oil spill is only the latest problem to confront St. Andrews. The current St. Andrews building, parishioners say, was built after Hurricane Audrey destroyed an older one in 1957. Gustav's destruction of the recreation hall was followed by the retirement of a priest who hasn't been replaced.

"They've persevered through an awful lot, I'll tell you," said Burns.