Last year was supposed to have been the first he could start fishing full time. Then BP's offshore oil rig exploded in April, and 185 million gallons of oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico, threatening the Gulf shrimp industry.
In the wake of the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history, Aaron has been trying to decide what to do with his life.
"It made you feel like it was just gone, like there was nothing you could do," he says of the spill. "It would come in and wipe us out."
Ten months later, deepwater drilling has resumed in the Gulf and the ban on fishing has been lifted for most areas, but the cleanup is far from over: In some communities, tar balls continue to wash up on beaches and an oil sheen can still be seen on the water. And though most agree the worst case scenario was avoided, the long-term environmental impact of so much oil in the water remains unclear. That's what worries Aaron Greco.
Few of his friends born into the Gulf Coast's fishing communities followed their fathers and grandfathers in the pursuit of wild seafood. Long before the oil rig exploded, rising fuel prices and competition from Asia's cheap farmed shrimp had made a risky and physically punishing profession far less profitable: Only a few thousand Louisianans now make their living fishing, down from more than 20,000 in the late 1980s. In short, it's a dying profession.
College or Fishing?
Yet Aaron was among those of his generation still drawn to this way of life. He wanted to be his own boss, to spend his days on the teeming marshes outside his door.
When the spill closed the waters around Delacroix Island, some 30 miles south of New Orleans, Aaron bounced between doubt and determination. His sisters pushed him to go on to college; his uncles warned of the lingering effects of the chemicals used to clean up the oil.
For his father, Buddy Greco, who had dropped out of school in 10th grade without ever learning to read, there had been no choice: Like almost everyone else in Delacroix, he never considered anything other than fishing.
Teenagers could make good money in those days in the Gulf. In 1986, wild-caught Gulf shrimp still accounted for nearly a quarter of the shrimp Americans ate, commanding the equivalent of nearly $2 per pound dockside.
By the time Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, imported farmed shrimpcheaper, but sometimes laced with illegal antibioticshad ballooned to 95 percent of U.S. consumption.
At age 13, Aaron began lobbying to quit school. "Let me come on the boat," he pleaded. But Buddy Greco wanted his son to have other options. The money in fishing was unpredictable and the work was dangerous. "You finish school, Aaron," he told his son. "You smart enough to go to college."
Aaron eked out a 2.9 G.P.A. at Chalmette High School and aced honors chemistry. A teacher urged him to apply to community college: "You're good at problem-solving," she told him before he graduated in January 2009.He considered mechanic school and took a job washing cars at a collision shop, with the promise to do body work eventually. But when the job was given to someone less skilled, he quit to go out on the water.
A few months later, Aaron's dad traded $800 and bartered time and equipment for a 51-foot boat that needed fixing up. When the BP oil rig exploded 41 miles offshore, they were almost done with repairs. Suddenly the future seemed very much in question.
'BP Fails . . . AGAIN!!!'
When the oil company's efforts to cap the well fell short, Aaron recorded it on his Facebook wall. "BP fails.... AGAIN!!!" he posted on May 29. Then, on June 15: "Sleepless night, lots of thinkin goin on."
As Aaron watched the live video of the oil flooding out of the well 5,000 feet underwater, he felt as if a brake had been slammed down. The money BP was paying him and his dad to help with the cleanup effort was welcome. But everyone knew that couldn't last. And then what?
And whether anyone would buy their seafood once they were allowed to catch it was another matter. Aaron saw a news clip showing a New York restaurant with a sign saying it did not sell Gulf seafood.
When an uncle offered him a deal on a shrimp boat that would be his own, Aaron wasn't sure what to do. On July 15, the BP well was finally capped, and Aaron decided to buy his uncle's boat.
Aaron's first solo run in late October was a disaster. His nets got tangled and ripped. The knots holding his rigging slipped. Two of his baskets meant to hold shrimp blew overboard.
But the next time, and the time after that, were better. Aaron was barely covering his fuel costs, but he would go every day, he vowed, to catch the volume he needed.
"This was a good day," he told his girlfriend optimistically a few nights later. "I got used to everything. I feltaccomplished."
(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 143, February 21, 2011)