May 26, 2010
Posted: 07:00 PM ET
Captain Keith Colburn is best know as captain of the Wizard on the Discovery Channel's hugely successful series, "Deadliest Catch." He's been a commercial fisherman for 25 years, and he's even participated in an oil spill cleanup in Dutch Harbor, Alaska. Colburn also testified before Congress against off-shore drilling in Bristol Bay. Captain Keith spoke with the LKL Blog and gave a unique, fisherman's perspective on the oil spill.
Colburn: Being an Alaska fisherman, there is grave concern about what is exactly going to happen to the food chain in the Gulf. The fish inside the Gulf, and also a lot of the predator fish outside, are all going to be impacted dramatically. Especially the oil down in the water column, down in the bottom where these species live. As a fisherman it's pretty dramatic, and it could have widespread implications.
When the Exxon Valdez hit the rocks in Prince William Sound, the biggest thing that impacted us in the Bearing Sea, and there wasn't a drop of oil in the Bearing Sea, was the public perception of anything Alaskan that was seafood. That dramatically impacted our pricing, and impacted all fisherman in the state of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. The perception from the public was that all seafood coming out of Alaska was tainted, which was not the case.
Unfortunately, what I think we're starting to see now is consumers are concerned that anything coming out of the Gulf States is tainted seafood products. So it's unfairly hurting these fisherman in advance of their fishing grounds being tainted by oil. That could have lasting effects on the shellfish and the fishing industry throughout the US.
As an Alaska fisherman, I'm not concerned about my resource because it won't be impacted environmentally, but, especially the fisherman down there in the gulf - Florida, Texas, Mississippi - they're all going to be impacted because of the consumer misconception that it's all tainted seafood. Hopefully by the end of the day there will still be fishing grounds that will be open, productive, and able to sustain at least some of the resource that has been harvested previously, but we'll have to wait and see.
LKL Blog: Do we know yet how much the overall catch will be affected?
Colburn: My concern is some of the Gulf fisherman I've talked to think this may affect them one, two, three years. They need to realize that this could dramatically impact and affect their way of life permanently.
The herring stocks in Prince William Sound 20 years later have never recovered, never. They have basically almost been completely decimated, and so this spill, which I believe has tracked to be already larger than the Valdez spill, has the potential because its moving slower and moving in and spreading out over a wider area, to be two to three times as devastating to that marine ecosystem as the one that happened in Alaska 20 years ago.
LKL Blog: Do you feel a kinship to the Gulf fisherman?
Colburn: Without question. I was in New Orleans not even a year ago and did a function with the Louisiana Shrimpers Association in the Gulf. It was to basically help them out because the shrimpers were already struggling with the high price of diesel to actually make a living.
They were struggling already with diesel prices and with imported farm shrimp, so now you are going to double that up with decreased quotas, decreased areas to fish, public skepticism about the quality of the product. It could have lasting and detrimental effects to not only the guys that fish.
All fisherman feel a kinship to each other, whether its lobsterman back on the east coast, or sailors fishing for herring in the bay area in San Francisco, we all make our living from the sea, we are all a little different breed of guys and gals. At the end of the day we are all hard working guys to make a living off the sea without damaging it at the same time.
LKL Blog: After the Valdez spill, what did the fisherman do? Obviously your life, your economic well-being is turned upside down.
Colburn: You're right, your economic well-being is turned upside down, you have no idea what the future holds for you. Some fisherman will be impacted greater than others, but in the near-term the thing that is scary is that what occurred during the Valdez spill is that fisherman all of a sudden became spill response personnel.
They basically took their fishing vessel, because the fisheries were closed, and went right into working on spill response cleanup. So for a year they managed to see good returns and good revenue based on a changing lifestyle for one year. But after that one year, and after they decided "well we have done as much as we can for the cleanup, that’s the best we’re going to do," the next season reality set in and it was "well wait a second, what am I going to do now? My herring fishery is closed, my salmon run that I use to fish is now closed, what am I going to do to get by this year?"
Now that’s what these guys need to look at, how am I going to be impacted long-term? If I do get through this season working on the spill as opposed to working on my boat catching shrimp, what am I going to do in the future after that.
LKL Blog: What can the government do to help these guys?
Colburn: Well you know, I don’t know. What I would like to see, to this point we are 36 days into this and it seems to me, and I'm not talking about the government, I'm talking about the oil industry - Halliburton, and Transocean - just keep this revolving door passing the buck and assessing blame. Instead of assessing blame lets find a realistic way to get this thing capped.
That’s that most disappointing thing. You've got these billions of dollars that go into research and development to tap wells and to pump. It's a thousand times greater than the amount of research and development to goes into capping these things. I mean, the oil industry is great at tapping wells, let's learn how to cap them as well in the event that we have something like that in the future.
LKL Blog: From what we know now, would you assess this as having a far greater impact than Valdez?
Colburn: With the information that is coming out now I think this will have an impact that could be tenfold what Valdez was. You are looking at heavily populated areas, ports and everything from tourism to sport into commercial fishing to transportation. All kinds of things could be impacted on the entire Gulf region and down the coast of Florida. This stuff might even make it up the east coast to the Atlantic coast.
We’re talking about heavily populated areas with lots of infrastructure, lots of jobs that are related in one way or the other to the ocean, to the beaches. Whether its tourism or guys fishing for little restaurants and mom-and-pop chains, it’s going to have a domino effect through the entire high depths of financial infrastructure of the southeast region of the U.S.
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