BY MIKE EHRLICH

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They could always count on the fish to come back.

Even after Hurricane Katrina devastated more than 90,000 square miles of Gulf coastline in 2005. Even three years later, when Gustav and Ike tore through the rebuilding efforts.

The residents of Venice, La., and surrounding communities in southern Louisiana have survived natural disasters and pieced together their lives after each blow. Residents returned, houses were rebuilt, and businesses reopened. The fish always came back, and the boats went trawlin’.

Then the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded on April 20 and created the largest oil spill in U.S. history. The residents of Venice, just 50 miles away from the offshore drilling site, once again looked across the Gulf waters as disaster approached.

“How many times must this world and this country see our people get back up on their own?” said Acy Cooper, vice president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association. “And we do it. We do it time and time again.

“But this is a whole different animal right here. This is totally different.”

This time though, residents feel that it’s not their houses and businesses that are endangered. It’s their livelihood — whether shrimping, fishing or oystering.“That’s all they know — the professional shrimpers,” said Kim Champlin, a commercial fisherman. “If the oil comes ashore and it kills the shrimp, or makes it where the shrimp leave or they don’t ever come back, what are they going to do?”

Champlin and the other Venice fishermen boast that they catch the world’s best shrimp. The mix of fresh and salt water in their Gulf backyard helped build a successful fishing industry.

This year, in fact, they had forecast a plentiful yield. The shrimping bounty expected could have gone a long way toward continuing the rebuilding efforts in southern Louisiana.

Just as fishing has provided a livelihood for generations, the oil industry is economically entrenched in coastal Louisianans’ way of life. The very oil that threatens has had a long, symbiotic relationship with fishing.

Oil rigs dot the horizon off Venice’s shores. Within one family, individuals might fish or work on a rig, particularly during fishing’s off-season. And fishermen will say that some of the best catches are found near oil-rig wreckage.

“We sacrifice a lot for the rest of this country, Louisiana does,” Cooper said. “We got the pipeline running right through this state right here. We drill holes in our backyards, just so they can keep warm. Without Louisiana and all we produce in this state, a lot of people would be cold.”

The timing of the oil spill, just before the start of the shrimping season, wiped out many residents’ potential income. To pay bills, they rely on payouts from BP, a process that has had its snags.

BP has also hired hundreds of residents to help in the cleanup efforts, but the workers are uncertain about the health effects of the crude oil and chemical dispersants that continue to spread on three sides around Venice, which juts into the Gulf in a peninsula.

They are also unsure how long their cleanup gigs will last. For now, they are trying to make as much money as they can. Once the paychecks stop coming from BP, they wonder when the next paycheck will come at all.

Because this time, the fish might not come back.