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Fish merchants close in New Orleans

WESTWEGO, May 26 – The fast-encroaching oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico is forcing fish merchants to close one by one in Louisiana\’s huge Westwego seafood market.

"I\’m closed because I couldn\’t get any crabs," said Michelle Chauncey, who pulled down her stall\’s rolling metal door on Friday.

Along the Westbank Expressway that follows the Mississippi River, a succession of 26 seafood stalls forms the "shrimp lot" market. These small wooden stores usually offer an assortment of fish, crabs and shrimp every single day of the week. But six stores have already closed their doors over the past 10 days.

"I really don\’t know what we are going to do. I prepare for the worst, I hope the best," said Chauncey, 41, as she roamed in front of "The Crab Shack," her yellow stall mounted with a giant blue crab.

"It\’s not just us; it\’s going to be a domino, it\’s everybody."

Her supplier, who usually has 35 fishermen, now only relies on six. The rest are working for BP, which operated the sunken Deepwater Horizon rig that drilled a now blown out well gushing crude into the Gulf.

Chauncey lives in Grand Isle, where the oil washed ashore on Thursday.

"Nobody wants to trust that seafood is safe," explained the mother of two as she pointed to the large, and now deserted, parking lot where merchants, cooks and customers usually gather.

She is now awaiting compensation from BP for her loss of income.

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"In the beginning, they were giving a lot of money," said Chauncey. "Now, it\’s different."

A little further down the road, Mary-Ann Guidroz still has a few pounds of shrimp to sell.

"On Wednesday or Thursday, I will have no more shrimp. Do you have a job for me?" she asked, bursting out laughing.

Guidroz is selling her last shrimp for four dollars a pound, a dollar more than her usual price.

"That\’s ridiculous," she acknowledged.

From the very first day of the disaster now lapping the Gulf\’s fragile coastline, "we felt the difference. There are no customers. They are afraid. Every week it\’s worse and worse," she added.

The robust fish merchant, never losing her smile, said she planned to make her own request for compensation from BP. Two stands nearby were closed. Those that remained open scrambled to sell frozen shrimp.

In Biloxi, on the Mississippi coast, Sean Desporte is expecting the worst.

"If it comes here to the coast, it can kill us," he warned.

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A lot of his clients have been asking whether oil was found in the shrimp and Desporte says he has now lost 20 to 30 percent of his usual business activity. He now has to import fish from Alabama.

On Tuesday, officials expanded a fishing ban in the Gulf, bringing to some 54,096 square miles (140,000 square kilometers) — approximately the size of Greece — the area now closed to fishermen.

A lot of fishing boats now only venture out to sea to help BP deploy millions of feet of floating boom barrier.

"I prepare for the worst, I hope for the best," said Chauncey, repeating an expression growing ever more common in Louisiana.

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