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Year after BP spill, Louisiana hears Easter season message

One reason for eating less or abstaining from dishes at Lent is to remind ourselves how much we depend on the sustenance of creation. Louisianans got a reminder last year of how fragile nature can be.

April 20, 2011|By Danny Heitman

In my home state of Louisiana, Wednesday's one-year anniversary of the BP oil rig explosion has arrived in the season of Lent, a time of spiritual reflection that, in this heavily Catholic region, is also touched by comic irony.

That's because Lent, which is supposed to be a period of fasting and abstinence, is also a prime time to savor our local seafood. The meatless Fridays of the church calendar are meant to be a penance, but they have instead often become occasions for crawfish boils and shrimp gumbo, oyster po' boys and soft-shell crabs, rich étouffées and fragrant bisques.

But if the pain of meatless Fridays often has become a pleasure in a part of the world known for its good times, the larger meaning of Lent's dietary principles hasn't been completely lost here.

One reason for eating less or abstaining from certain dishes is to remind ourselves how much we depend on the sustenance of creation. Louisiana residents got a vivid reminder last year of how fragile nature can be when the BP oil leak blackened the Gulf of Mexico, placing oyster beds and fisheries at risk.

Arriving at local groceries and eateries to find our favorite seafood in short supply, we remembered that oysters and shrimp are not born of the freezer case or restaurant kitchen but from a delicate marine ecosystem that's all too vulnerable to industrial catastrophe. The nation and world shared in our loss, because Louisiana fisheries help feed people around the globe. By one estimate, Louisiana's coast produces nearly one-third of the domestic seafood consumed in the United States.

The good news, one year after the oil spill, is that Louisiana's seafood industry is rebounding from the accident. The federal government has concluded that the seafood from our waters is safe to eat. But the long-term impact of the spill on the ecological health of the gulf will take longer to sort out. For the families and loved ones of the 11 people who died when the BP oil rig exploded, life will never be the same.

Louisiana is not alone, of course, in dealing with the delicate and sometimes strained relationship between industry and the food chain. The recent problems with nuclear reactors in earthquake-and-tsunami-ravaged Japan showed how quickly radiation, another form of pollution, can threaten the land and water that feed our hungry planet.

As Easter approaches, we remember its message of renewal. But in remembering last year's oil spill and the ongoing challenges in Japan, we think as well of environmentalist Rachel Carson's solemn warning of a silent spring, a season permanently quieted by the hubris of human ambition. Although the pain of the BP oil spill is subsiding, we must continue to work to ensure that such a day never comes.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for the Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of "A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House."

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