On the morning of May 23rd, 2010, Mike Roberts, a Louisiana fisherman, received a call from a friend who told him that he needed to get out on the water right away, so he hopped in his boat and headed out to his usual shrimping area with his wife, grandson, and some friends. When he got to his fishing spot, he wasn’t prepared for what he saw. There was oil as far as the eye could see.

I was sitting in the audience when Mike recounted this story at an event organized by ForestEthics with help from Dogwood in Vancouver a couple of weeks ago. He was there with his wife, Tracy Kuhns, who led us through a slideshow of pictures of their numerous grandkids, their shrimp boat, the oil, and their home on the bayou. Mike hadn’t intended to speak much – he admitted to me after the talk that he hated public speaking – but what he said was so matter of fact and straight from the heart that most in the audience had to wipe the tears from their eyes while he was speaking.

“It doesn’t end. It goes on for hundreds of miles in the Gulf of Mexico, and it’s just started coming in here.”

He continued his story by describing how that day, after zipping around over miles and miles of ocean, visiting a handful of the fishing grounds he depended on for his livelihood – all thick with oil – they eventually came upon friends of theirs. They were shrimp fishermen who had been hired by BP to clean up the spill, and were frantically skimming oil off the surface of the water with booms. He asked them where the oil ended. They replied, “It doesn’t end. It goes on for hundreds of miles in the Gulf of Mexico, and it’s just started coming in here.” Mike said that’s when it hit him. He wept, something he had not done since his father passed away thirty years earlier.

And that’s when it hit me. I originally became involved as a volunteer with Dogwood specifically because of the tankers campaign, but Mike’s story brought just what is really at stake here on BC’s north coast into chillingly sharp focus. It was a first-hand account of the consequences of an oil spill on a family and their business. Theirs is a small, family-owned fishing operation, involving everyone, even the grandkids. It doesn’t matter how much money BP hands out, that oil spill will have changed the ecosystem upon which they depend for food and wealth forever.

It made me think of a trip I took with my family up the Inside Passage when I was 11 years old. We stayed with friends in Bella Bella for two weeks. The father was a fisherman who caught salmon and halibut with his sons. We had salmon with almost every meal the entire two weeks I was there, prepared in every way imaginable. Sitting there, listening to Mike and Tracy, I was forced to imagine what an oil spill would mean for families like this.

“I’ve seen over 100 oil spills over my lifetime, living in coastal Louisiana,” said Mike, at the end of his story. “If you guys want to live with that, then have oil and gas come to town, and that’s the truth.” The good news is that British Columbians have the ability to say “no” to tankers on our north coast, and overwhelmingly, we have already made up our minds.

You can watch a video of Mike Roberts speaking here, or read an article he wrote about his experience here.

Karl Hardin is Dogwood’s new communications coordinator.

This is the first of our new stories from the field series. We are looking for more stories, so if you have one relevant to Dogwood’s work, or can send us a photo with a quote about why you are opposed to tankers on our coast, or reckless development in the Capital Regional District, please email karl@dogwoodbc.ca.