As BP's oil approached the coast in 2010, many marina operators and fishing guides who had been wiped out by Hurricane Katrina found themselves looking back at that disaster with something akin to longing.
Experience had taught them that although hurricanes could beat them down, at least they left them with the raw material to rebuild again. Oil pollution was another story altogether. It could be the disaster that never stops giving.
I remember Chris Wilson of River's End Outfitters in Venice predicting questions about oil would dog his business forever more. And, "every time something isn't going right from now on, everyone will wonder: Is it the oil?"
Now many guides and anglers say something has definitely gone wrong with speckled trout this summer, during this season which they describe as "terrible" or "a disaster" and "the worst I've seen since the 1983 freeze."
And as predicted, they are beginning to wonder if BP's oil isn't behind the downturn.
Stu Scheer of Cocodrie Inside Charters, at 67 the most tenured coastal fishing guide in Louisiana, was careful to start with this disclaimer: "I have a theory, it's not scientific -- not based on any official studies -- just my opinion."
But then he added this codicil to his disclaimer: "But my opinion is based on 41 years of doing this -- of fishing these same areas 12 months a year."
And after a deep but short breath, he said this:
"It's the BP oil spill. I think it wiped out our spawning class in 2010, and now we're paying the price."
Scheer's theory goes like this:
The oil and dispersant came ashore during the peak months of the 2010 speck spawning season -- April through September -- and "wiped out the spawn."
The fishing closures enforced during the spill produced a big carryover in the trout population that powered a great season in 2011, giving everyone a false sense of security.
The 2012 trout season started early because of a mild winter and early spring, and was great until the end of June, when it dropped off dramatically. That's because by then, the leftovers from 2010 had been caught and there were no young trout from the 2010 spawn to rebuild the population.
"Like I said, this isn't based on any science I've seen, but I've been (fishing here) professionally for 41 years, and I've seen everything else, and nothing I've ever experienced here fits," Scheer said.
"I can tell you the last time I saw trout fishing this bad was in 1984, which was the season after the great freeze of 1983, which killed about 80 percent of all the trout in the marsh.
"Well, the only thing I can link this to -- the only thing that's happened -- is BP's oil. That's my theory. I know it's not science-based, but what else could be the cause?"
What do the state's fisheries scientists say?
Indirectly: There is no evidence of an imminent collapse of the speckled trout resource.
I say "indirectly" because while the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries is continuing to monitor the state's population of trout and most other species in the wake of the spill, they have been advised by lawyers for the state not to release their analysis of that data. That's because their data and judgments will be part of the record in deciding how much BP owes for damages to public resources.
However, the agency still has a legal obligation to safely manage the resource. So even in these situations, if its research reveals a problem -- say to human health or to an imminent collapse because of oil impacts -- the LDWF would be obligated to take management action. That could be closing a fishery or changing regulations.
Asked if its data collection revealed any problems with the speckled trout population, Randy Pausina, head of fisheries for the LDWF, responded with this statement:
"Right now, we don't have a documented issue with any particular finfish fisheries population sufficient to warrant addressing bag limits. If we did, however, bag limits would be one of many tools we would consider using to conserve a fisheries population. We might also use seasons or size limits to manage the fisheries. Ultimately, we will manage the fisheries whenever a decline occurs, no matter the cause."
One doesn't need X-ray vision to read between those lines, especially the last one: "Ultimately, we will manage the fisheries whenever a decline occurs, no matter the cause."
Those raw data sets are available to anyone by contacting the LDWF. But the interpretation will also be your job.
So is there a problem with trout, or a problem with fishermen? Or could trout just not be in traditional summer spots because of a variety of environmental factors?
If the LDWF is, indeed, doing its job to the letter of the law, then so far it has collected no evidence the speckled trout population along the southeast Louisiana coast is in danger of collapse, or otherwise in need of new regulatory action. That doesn't mean we're free of oil worries. Some species in Alaska didn't show problems until four years after the Exxon Valdez disaster.
But the fact that Scheer's theory is gaining support among professional fishermen from Lake Pontchratrain to Timbalier Island is proof of just how damaging BPs oil has already been to our coast.
A spill doesn't end when the well is just off, or the last mitigation payment is made by the oil company. It keeps giving doubt, grief and anxiety forever.
Just ask the folks living along Prince William Sound.