Troubled Waters

Troubled Waters

Life on the bayou isn’t easy for the  black fishermen who make their living harvesting oysters  and catching shrimp along the Gulf Coast. Their work-worn hands and leathered faces illustrate just how tough their job is. Many, like Byron Encalade, president of the Louisiana Oystermen’s Association, come from families that have made their living on the water for generations.

As a boy, he performed small tasks for his uncle and grandfather, helping them prep their daily catch so he could earn a few nickels. Now 56, and owner-operator of two boats, Lady Pamela and Miss Tallace, Encalade and many others cannot imagine any other way of life. Despite the many hardships they’ve faced–both man-made and natural disaster–fishing is in their blood and the foundation of a deeply rich culture that no amount of money could buy.

“People feel privileged to have this life, raised in the bayous and the swamp,” says Encalade. “This is what we call our riches and where we’re at peace.”

A typical day begins at the harbor with a predawn ritual of hot coffee and fish stories before the men head out to sea, and it ends with cold beers, maybe a little supper–and more tales. Even the old guys, long retired, turn up to reminisce and participate vicariously in the experience.

But everything changed on April 20, when BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded, killing 11 men and spewing about 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. After several failed attempts, the sea-floor oil gusher was capped in July and sealed on Aug. 5.  (A final seal was scheduled for September.)

At various times throughout the spill, oysters, shrimp, and other species were available at 30% of normal volume, but shrimp have begun to increase as some of the precautionary closures in the Gulf have reopened, according to Gavin Gibbons, spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute, a seafood trade association. The fact that some boats are still devoted to the cleanup effort is also a factor in reduced availability, he adds. “It’s getting back on line slowly in terms of volume, except oysters. Those beds are still part of the precautionary closures,” Gibbons says.

The National Fisheries Institute tracked the price of oysters and shrimp, considered bellwethers for the Gulf, for approximately 100 days. As of late August, their dockside prices had increased about 50% and 25%, respectively, compared to before the spill. Retail prices could be even higher if that cost is passed on to the customer.

The cost has been far higher to the fishermen and other business people whose livelihoods depend on the seafood industry. Before the disaster, Encalade’s company could gross an average of $5,000 on a good day during a season. “It sounds like a lot of money, but these boats cost a lot of money,” he says. Encalade also has two refrigerated 18-wheelers that haul his products and those of other businesses.

BP has publicly vowed to “make things right,” but Encalade is skeptical and worries about how his comrades will feed their families. The father of four adult daughters has been a fierce advocate for his fellow fishermen. He says making the oil company more attentive to their plight–from getting adequate compensation for loss of income to participating in the cleanup–has been frustrating. Encalade also has testified before Congress and appeared in several newscasts on the spill.

“The emotional and financial impact has been hard and that’s why I’ve been so vocal. We can’t afford to sit back and not be heard this time,” says an aggravated Encalade, recalling Hurricane Katrina. “If we can’t get justice out of this, we can no longer exist as a community and the tragedy is we’ll lose our culture.”

Making matters worse, in July, BP decided to decrease payments of claims filed by 40,000 people who’d lost jobs or businesses because their documentation was deemed incomplete, improperly filled out, or missing corroborating state records that were acceptable to the company. In a letter to Kenneth Feinberg, the federally appointed BP claims administrator, Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services Secretary Kristy Nichols wrote the move would be “devastating” to claimants and that it was “irresponsible and in complete contrast to BP’s repeated promise that they will ‘make things right.’”

BP spokesman John Curry defended the decision, saying the company intends to stand by its promise but any claims processed must include the appropriate documentation. “We asked for tax returns but also understood that some don’t have that,” says Curry. “We’ve been lenient and asked for other things, like bank deposits and trip tickets, anything to understand what it is you’re claiming.” As of late August, BP has paid out more than $395 million in claims, according to Curry. He adds that the company has also set up a $20 billion escrow fund for long-term claims, which Feinberg began overseeing Aug. 23.

Feinberg performed similar duties for the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund and for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) executive compensation program. In the first 90 days of the Gulf Coast Claims Facility’s opening, he was to administer emergency compensation for as much as six months of losses. Just before the claims facility opened, Feinberg said those who accept this interim compensation will still be able to sue BP.

Help is also coming from Seedco, a national nonprofit community development organization that operates a Fisheries Assistance Center in Plaquemines Parish (just outside New Orleans). It began providing business and technical assistance after Hurricane Katrina and has helped fishermen and other affected businesses file claims for lost wages, sign up for cleanup activities, and access grants and loans awarded by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. In addition, Seedco has allowed the fishermen to defer for up to six months approximately $5 million in principal and interest on their loans.

“Since the spill, the [center] has received nearly 1,000 visits from fishermen seeking assistance from Seedco, the Small Business Administration, and the Louisiana State Small Business Development Center,” Lesia Bates Moss, president of Seedco Financial, said in August. “Loan deferments have been issued to 100 borrowers. To date, we’ve received payoff from four borrowers with several more requesting to come off deferment.”

This was supposed to be a comeback year for many fishermen, who anticipated they’d finally be able to fully recover from Katrina, which had severely diminished their numbers.

“The oysters and shrimp had come back 100% with the catch and the price, so I was looking at a very, very good season,” says Roland Phillips, 60, whose family has been fishing the waters of the Gulf for four generations.

At the start of the oyster season, Phillips was earning about $12,000 weekly and was poised to do even better. After the spill, he and his two sons received an undisclosed amount from BP to compensate for their financial losses and were provided jobs by contractors to help with the cleanup. A BP spokesperson says on average, fishermen, shrimpers, oyster harvesters, and crabbers in the affected area received $7,500­—$9,000 depending on their specific losses. Phillips feels confident the global oil giant will keep its word.

“It took a while to stop the leak, but when they capped the well, it was the happiest day of my life,” he says. “From where it started to now, I’ve seen a big improvement. The only thing I’m concerned about is whether or not [oil] will show up in a year or so, but I have to honestly believe that BP won’t leave us hanging and will make sure everything’s done and done well.”

Encalade is less optimistic. He says the process for joining BP’s Vessels of Opportunity program, an initiative that employs fishermen and other contractors to participate in the cleanup, has been unfair, bypassing the fishermen who know the area best and would do cleanup work for a fraction of the cost charged by out-of-state contractors.

“We saw that during Katrina, with poor people sitting on the side waiting for the Road Home program while they brought in contractors from elsewhere,” recalls Encalade, who has one boat in Vessels of Opportunity. “It’s sad when you look at the people benefiting from this and it’s ridiculous that we’re going down that same old road.”

Although the process isn’t infallible, Curry says BP’s program gives priority to contracting with owner-operators of local commercial and charter fishing vessels to remove the oil. As of early August, BP has employed 1,451 Vessels of Opportunity, more than 450 barges and 830 skimmers, and 1,000-plus other vessels, for a total of approximately 3,700.

The contracting process isn’t the only controversial part of the cleanup. Government and independent scientists are at odds over the amount of oil recovered. On Aug. 4, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other federal agencies released a report  in which they noted 75% of the oil has been recovered. But at a House Energy and Environment Subcommittee hearing in August, Lisa Suatoni, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, challenged the government’s findings.

“There is still a huge amount of oil in the ecosystem. Even accepting the government’s characterization that 75% is gone, then there would be as much as 50 million gallons in the system, almost five times the size of the Exxon Valdez spill,” Suatoni testified. “It does a disservice to the Gulf region and to the public at large to minimize the problem that this amount of oil can cause.”

The immediate concern is about food safety. The Food and Drug Administration has assured consumers that seafood being harvested from those affected waters is safe to eat, but doubts remain. “Crude oil may contain compounds that are toxic and/or carcinogenic,” says Marjorie Spencer Campbell, chair of Clark Atlanta University’s biological sciences department. “If oil compounds are consumed, some of the compounds may accumulate in the fatty tissues of aquatic animals. The accumulation can increase as you move from one organism to the next up the food chain.”

The Environmental Protection Agency, the FDA, NOAA, and regional regulators are testing the oil for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, a carcinogen found naturally in oil that is dangerous at high levels. So far, no tests have yielded results that would keep Gulf seafood (roughly 70% of it comes from Louisiana) off the market, National Fisheries Institute spokesman Gibbons says.

But that hasn’t helped Karl Turner, founder of A La Carte Specialty Foods. In 2009, his firm, which specializes in the manufacturing and marketing of heat-and-serve seafood products, earned $2 million in gross sales. The spill has tarnished his brand, causing a precipitous drop in sales of Sauté Your Way, a line of frozen entrees featuring Gulf shrimp that is available in 300 grocery stores across Louisiana.

Research by the Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board had shown that consumers viewed Gulf shrimp as a highly valuable and sought after product, Turner said. “Now those words don’t necessarily mean that anymore and there’s been consumer resistance to that brand,” he said. His product experienced about a 70% decline in sales, simply based on consumer perception. In late July, Turner began running television ads in Baton Rouge to restore consumer confidence and build brand awareness, and people are responding.

“I had to let them know the product is good, wholesome, and available in the local market,” says Turner. In the meantime, the price of shrimp increased approximately $1 per pound, so he’s holding on tightly to inventory acquired before the spill. Turner hoped white-shrimp season, which began in mid-August, would bring down prices. “Price and perception will determine the future.”

Even prior to the oil spill, the Louisiana and Mississippi coastal regions were considered fragile because of the high rate of wetlands loss and its vulnerability to coastal storms and climate change.

“Oil complicates [the ecosystem] beyond imagination,” says Kamran K. Abdollahi, a professor of urban forestry, natural resources and environment at Southern University in Baton Rouge. He believes the spill will accelerate the coastline’s deterioration and predicts the loss of a significant number of coastal fisheries. The ecosystem’s natural components could take years or even decades to degrade the oil, Abdollahi said.

According to Curry, BP has committed $500 million over 10 years for research on the spill’s impact on the Gulf. “We’ll continue  to take water samples every day and work with governmental folks like NOAA and the EPA. We want to try to understand the long-term impact,” the oil company spokesman says.

Encalade is determined to hold the corporation to its word. “When faced with the annihilation of your heritage and community and a person’s back is against the wall, you have to fight to survive,” he says. “We have nowhere else to go. We can’t start up somewhere else. We do what we do.”