NEW ORLEANS — I met George Barisich at 6:30 a.m. at Seabrook Harbor for an interview on his shrimp boat. He’d suggested the hour, thinking it might make for better photographs.
Sure enough, as we toe-heeled across the skinny gangplank to his boat, a 52-footer called the "Peruga," the sun was only a flaming copper disk low in the sky. Gulls circled the empty harbor as crickets chirped from their hiding places along the wharf.
Barisich is a veteran interviewee and practiced host. As president of the United Commercial Fishermen’s Association, a trade association, he’s been interviewed by NPR and CBS and so many other media outlets he can’t remember them all. The tough talking but gregarious fisherman sees a lot and does a lot, lobbying against regulations he sees as business-crimping and negotiating better deals for his guys.
He’s also donated a refurbished house — damaged in Hurricane Katrina — to the St. Bernard Project, a local nonprofit that helps gut and rebuild homes still uninhabitable five years after the storm.
Out on Barisich’s boat, we talked about the oil spill, Hurricane Katrina and the punishing economics of the fishing industry. He’s proud of his way of life, referring to fishermen as “us” and his shrimp boat as “me.” That’s what makes tomorrow so hard. On Saturday, Barisich is “goin’ BPin’,” and taking training to become a cleanup worker in the Gulf.
Here’s a little of what he had to say. (And readers, be warned: It’s a little “colorful.”)
The early days of the spill:
“Three days after the (explosion), we in St. Bernard had winds out of the northwest, so the oil’s going that way (away from the coast of the parish). .. ‘Listen people, this is not good,’ I said. ‘This is a seven-inch pipe, not some little spill ... So I said, ‘Let’s go contain (the oil), let’s go get something out there before the southeast wind comes.’ This is my time of year (for fishing). But everybody's walkin’ around like this (Barisich walks around), with their finger up their ass. Well, sure enough, the wind comes out of the southeast, 40 miles an hour — which is typical, no storm, just a typical southeast flow — and all of a sudden, St. Bernard’s getting ready to get hit, and they panicked! And I said, ‘Well, you know, that’s eight days y’all sat on your ass.’”
To fish or not to fish:
"We got dead fish seven miles away from where I got my oysters around, and these assholes from the state opened up my grounds. They want to know why I’m not fishin’. 'We ran into a dead fish seven miles away from here, what killed it?' I ask. 'Oh, uh, we decided it was an algae bloom,' they said. An algae bloom in saltwater? No. Go tell somebody else that. I’m not gonna bring a product on the market from my leases — my cultivated grounds — and (I'm not) gettin’ one person sick."
The 'Last Trip' video:
"It only comes up if you put 'The Last Trip with George Barisich,' because there’s so many 'last trips' on YouTube. I’m learning! Pre-Katrina, I was able to stay away from the computer world, because there’s no computer that can catch oysters or catch shrimp ... But after Katrina, I had to learn." (He made a DVD about his experience during the storm, in which he lost his house.)
On government distrust:
"(This boat is) the last one of its kind in St. Bernard parish ... (The boat) survived Katrina, and then the idiots in the National Guard wouldn’t let me go back in and retie it for (Hurricane Rita, which came shortly after Hurricane Katrina). Well, I got put on top the rocks in Hurricane Rita. So you understand why I’m kind of cynical against the government.
You know, we lost our boats and our leases and our oysters and our fisheries in a natural disaster. Nothing you can do about that. That’s Mother Nature, and we deal with Mother Nature on a daily basis, so that’s acceptable. But I lost my home because of the incompetence of the federal government (because of the bad levees). ... You can take a business loss, but when you lose your home and your house, that’s an ass whoopin’. (Laughs.) And then you get no help, until people came — people (like from the St. Bernard Project) came and helped us."
Whom do you trust more: BP or the government?
"Neither. They’re culpable in their own ways. BP, you got no trust, from the get-go they’re like, 'Oh, oil spill? It’s not much.' Then you start lookin’ at the amount, and they lied, every time they lie. And BP and the government, they’re in bed together. So I’m sayin’ it’s gotta be neither, because you got the Coast Guard going around with BP guys on Coast Guard boats and stopping people from showing the truth. In some avenues, they are the same."
How BP is perceived:
"The problem is, they’ve been spraying that (expletive) dispersant. So nobody would see (the oil). Out of sight, out of mind. But nobody knows what (the dispersant is) doin’... It’s like a big test tube out there for these guys. 'Let’s see what it’s gonna do, we don’t care who we gonna kill, or what we gonna kill, or what economic impact; we’ll pay for it.' And that’s the attitude. But I tried explainin’ to ‘em, you can’t revive this culture. Once you take a notch out of it, it takes a lick. And if it takes a lick for too long, people are gonna drop. Industries are gonna drop. And that’s what they’re not getting. A check? (Expletive) you and your check. I don’t wanna be an oil mopper."
BP as a verb:
"It was 38 days (after the spill) when they opened up an area where I fish at because it wasn’t inundated. So I went shrimpin’. Everyone else BP’ed. They said, 'Oh, you can make more money with BP.' But I said, 'You go ahead.' I don’t want it. I don’t want to have to do it. 'You can make more money,' they said. Well, that’s not an issue. I know I can make more money BPin’. But I don’t want to BP.
I stay shrimpin’. There’s multiple reasons, and I told them at several meetings when they asked me why I don’t work full time. Understand this: I don’t want to take my name off the list (for oil cleanup rotations) in case happens what did happen. I’m happy to do something. But I don’t want to do this, either. And if I don’t get involved in a rotation, that means somebody else who can’t go shrimpin’ and produce, OK, has more time to work.
If I keep bringing product in, even though it’s minimal compared to what’s normally produced, that dealer still has somebody to buy shrimp from. He has somebody to sell shrimp to. He has some shrimp to process, even though it’s minimum, but he can still keep things alive. So it’s not just, 'George wants to shrimp.'"
On BP money:
(For a 24 hour shift doing oil cleanup, Barisich expects to get paid $360 to work as captain, and $2,000 for his 52-foot boat. I asked him if that was more money than he'd get spending the same amount of time shrimping.)
"Sometimes it's a little more, sometimes it's a little less. And that's fishin'. But you see, even if BP is paying me more individually, the net economic impact is worse. ... We got 4,000 (fishermen), but only 1,600 are workin' for BP ... And then you got all the grocers, (shrimp) distributors ... and the environmental impact ... So you can't say (getting paid more) is positive."
"That was the term for the (Exxon-Valdez spill cleanup workers), because they paid them a lot of money. But that was one universe of oil. You got a rocky shore. It was terrible, but it was doable. So now they’re like, 'Oh, we’re gonna clean it up!' and I started laughing and said, 'You don’t understand ... The Gulf never quits. It never rests. It goes east, it goes west, it goes north, this wind affects it, pushes it this way ...' I hope I’m wrong, I pray I’m wrong, that it just stays out there and Mother Nature kicks its ass, and it stays out."
On joining the cleanup:
"If it goes as planned, basically I won’t be touchin’ much oil. This boat and another boat, in unison, will be pulling the big booms, and gathering it up, and another boat will come behind with the skimming stuff, and the only time we’ll be touching it — I don’t know for sure, because I’m not working for them yet — is when we pick up the boom material. And if they don’t provide those gloves — which they will, OK? — we already have enough (gloves and masks).
You can deal with (the toxicity of) this stuff, but you gotta be prepared for it. And that’s what made it so aggravating when BP would not mandate (protective gear), because if they mandate it, they admit there’s a health issue."
Not just semantics:
"This is not a natural disaster. Number one, it’s man-made; number two, it could have been prevented ... That’s what makes it three times harder to live with. And the American public doesn’t understand that. So that’s what you need to get out there. This is 'disaster,' but there’s no 'natural' in front of it. Preventable, man-made disaster; that’s how it’s got to be promoted."
"What you want me do, cry? I wasn’t bred to cry. My mom and dad came from the old country (Croatia). We didn’t know we was poor. We had plenty to eat, we had a roof over our heads, and we did well ... the American dream ... so I’m not genetically bred to quit or to give up. My daddy’d be spittin’ on me from heaven if he’d see me cry and whine like a baby. That’s why I do what I do, I guess."