Louisiana bayou life in jeopardy after oil spill

CYPRESS GROVE, Louisiana Wed Jul 14, 2010 3:55pm EDT

CYPRESS GROVE, Louisiana (Reuters) - At first glance, everything appears normal on the bayou where Emile Trudeau has been coming to fish, shrimp and crab since he was a boy.

Porgy and garfish jump from the brackish waters, schools of minnows hurry by and wiggling crabs float by Trudeau's dock.

But look a bit closer and an iridescent film of oil is visible in standing water -- a sign that life in this part of the world has inexorably changed.

"It's just heart-breaking," said the 69-year-old Trudeau. "They don't realize what they've done to this place."

"They" is BP Plc, the British-based global energy company whose devastating spill has been gushing oil into the Gulf of Mexico since late April. While a new containment cap may offer a chance to staunch the flow, those who live on the bayou say it is already too late.

Trudeau points to his crab traps, lying neglected at the side of his camp.

"For Father's Day my daughter bought me three new ones," said the former Navy Seabee, his voice wavering. "You can't use them. It just tears you up."

Water is in the lifeblood of the bayou, a world of flat marshy wetlands near the estuaries of the Gulf Coast.

The isolated swamps were settled by the French Acadians, known as the Cajuns, who carried their language and cuisine to Louisiana after being evicted from what is now the Canadian province of Nova Scotia by the British government in the 1750s.

Locals speak almost reverently about the bayou's bounty, from crawfish and shrimp to redfish and flounder. It is hard work making a living in these waters but the bayou has also represented a lazy comfort to generations of Louisianans.

"The water is almost a spiritual thing," said Alden Lombard, who smiled at the recollection of shrimp hauls of years past. "It's more than just a way to make a living -- it's a way of life."

PRE-OILED SEAFOOD

Gallows humor now masks a feeling of powerlessness over the spill that has forever altered this quiet corner of the world.

"They're changing the name of the city and state to 'New Oileans, Grease-iana," guffawed Jimmy Meyers, 62, who sat among his buddies at a donut shop and watched images of spewing oil on television. "We got pre-oiled seafood!"

Others are just plain sad.

Cherie Pete, born and bred in southeastern Louisiana, said it pains her to see the oystermen, shrimpers and fisherman who have plied their trade for generations now wearing uniforms of oil spill clean-up workers.

"They have the hardhats on and the tags around their necks. They don't look like our men," she said. "Our total way of life has already changed."

Although the spill may force many residents to move, others do not know what else to do but live on the bayou.

"I'll be here until I die," said Trudeau, who painted an American flag on his boathouse where his boat is idled. He bought a fishing license last month, out of hope and habit, but has not used it.

Louie Barthelemy, a shrimper, looks tired.

"It's everything I've ever done," he said. "I think it's over. I'm pretty sure it is."

(Editing by Chris Baltimore and John O'Callaghan)

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