Fishermen are drawn to Grand Isle from far beyond, according to Violet Peters, president and CEO of the Jefferson Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“Louisiana has the best fishing in the world so people fly in from all over the southern region of the United States to visit and fish Louisiana waters,” she said.
Sportsmen and women can go salt-water fishing at Grand Isle or fresh water fishing out of Westwego and Lafitte in nearby upper Jefferson Parish, she said.
Little Fishing Now
But clean-up workers, not fishermen, fill most of the island’s motels and “fishing camps” these days. With most of the waters around Grand Isle closed to fishing, the “fishing camps”—vacation cottages on stilts that line the island’s hurricane levee—are now home to members of the media or clean-up workers.
Even areas open to fishing are hurting as charters lack customers, she said. “While they have the availability to go fishing because (some) waters are open that the charter fishermen can get to, because of the perception that everything’s covered (in oil), they’ve had no visitors,” she added.
The annual July Fourth fireworks display has been cancelled as have about a dozen fishing rodeos that attract thousands of visitors to the island each year.
Family Vacations on Grand Isle
While fishermen make up perhaps 70 percent of the tourism market, Grand Isle is also a vacation destination for families, Josie Cheramie, tourist commissioner for Grand Isle, said.
“We have a lot of people who just like to come out to the beach because they could crab,” she said. “They would be coming to the beach, the kids could play, they’d put their crab lines out, catch crabs, go back to the camp or the motel, boil the crab and bring home what they can’t eat because you always catch more than you can eat.
“If they caught fish, they’d be able to have a fish fry—shrimp, same thing. They liked coming to those kind of things because it was a fun family vacation and they got food on top of that.”
That probably won’t happen again this summer. The island’s beaches stretching along its seven-mile length are closed—at least access to the water is. Grand Isle State Park, considered the island’s crown jewel, is open even though its beach remains closed as cleanup continues, Tamara Augustine, park manager, said.
Oil Cleanup Ramps Up
The oil spill cleanup has really ramped up since late May, when a visitor could not find a single cleanup worker on the beach. “Because it’s such a large operation, we have close to 1,000 people coming through the park a day—sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less,” Augustine said. “I think it just took a little bit of doing to get the right people in place.”
Wayne Keller, executive director of the Grand Island Port Commission, agrees.
“It’s finally starting to gain a little momentum,” he said. “There’s a heck of a lot of bugs to be worked out but we’re starting to see some positive things come about.”
Still, Keller cautions that just because you can’t see oil, that doesn’t mean it’s not there.
“You can go out behind Grande Terre (a nearby island) and that water looks fine,” he said. “You start up your engine on your boat and the propeller just stirs stuff up from the bottom, and you see oil come up so it’s real obvious it’s still on the bottom.”
Both Cheramie and Vidras applauded residents from New Orleans and other nearby areas for visiting Grand Isle as day-trippers.
“Some come down for day trips, which is wonderful,” Cheramie said. “They’ll try to spend money here by eating out here and buying a few souvenirs. It’s not quite the same as summertime visitors but every little bit helps.”
“Last weekend a whole bunch came down from New Orleans to show support for the area which was very nice,” Vidras said.
Groups of school children recently spent a day on the island witnessing first hand what they had seen on television, Cheramie said. The Director of the Port Commission gave them “the inside scoop on the whole situation,” she added.
How Long Will the Cleanup Take?
How long the workers will be on Grand Isle is anybody’s guess.
“They will be here until the oil stops washing ashore,” Augustine said. “There is no time frame for that. It’s going to depend on when they get the leak stopped and when all of the oil has either dissipated naturally or is washed ashore somewhere else. It’s definitely going to be a long process but they are doing what they said (they would) and the beach looks great.”
Tourism Is Off
The park campground, usually filled with campers at this time of the year, is only half full, mostly with cleanup workers, Augustine said.
Jerry Vidras who owns the Rusty Pelican Motel on the island, said business was off there by 80 percent over Memorial Day weekend after officials closed the beaches and before cleanup workers had arrived in force.
“It’s picking up because all of the workers they got working on the beach, “ he said. “Anything they can rent, they rent right now. As long as the workers are here, everybody’s going to be in good shape. The restaurants are doing real good right now. They’re always packed.”
But others who cater to tourists, like charter boat owners, aren’t so lucky. While some charter owners and commercial fishermen have been hired for the cleanup, some have not, Cheramie said.
“We still have a list of guys that have not been hired yet–too many to make us comfortable,” she added. “We want to get them all working because that’s the only way they have a living.”
Kathie Immormino Sutin is a freelance writer based in St. Louis, Mo . She writes about travel, health, food, business, construction and people.