Fishermen Sign On to Clean Up Oil
Kim Vo of Sharko Seafood, a local seafood company in in Venice, La., was selling the company’s final 50 pounds of shrimp.
By ROBBIE BROWN
Published: April 30, 2010
VENICE, La. — About 1,000 angry and frustrated fishermen packed an elementary school gymnasium here Friday afternoon. In a cruel occupational twist, they were seeking employment with the company they blame for an oil spill that may wipe out their industry this year and beyond.
Officials Assail Oil Company Over Response to Gulf Spill (May 1, 2010)
The Lede Blog: Updates on the Oil Slick in the Gulf of Mexico (April 30, 2010)
Oil Spill’s Blow to BP’s Image May Eclipse Costs (April 30, 2010)
Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times
Fishermen gathered at Boothville-Venice Elementary School and registered to take a safety awareness class so they will be able to participate in the oil spill clean-up efforts.
Life in this coastal community centers on seafood — mullet, shark, shrimp and oysters. From May to December, dozens of boats haul shrimp here from the Gulf of Mexico. But aside from two days of fishing allowed this week ahead of the approaching oil slick, the shrimp season has been suspended.
So the fishermen came to receive training in how to clean up the oil spill that was creeping up on the nearby coastline. They were hoping to be hired by BP, the company blamed for the spill and responsible for cleanup efforts.
“Either the seafood industry or the oil industry — that’s the only jobs down here, so I guess I’m trying to move from seafood to oil today,” said Bernel Prout, 55, a fisherman and Venice native.
Friday’s training session was led by local firefighters and law enforcement officials and attended by representatives from BP, the parish government and the local fishermen’s association.
BP has said it will hire as many local residents as possible to clean the beaches and distribute booms through the surrounding marshes and waterways.
But the fishermen said they were reeling from the loss of revenue. They were not told how many would be hired, at what wages, or when. But they were asked to fill out forms listing their names, contact information and available equipment and skills.
“This is not our fault,” Mr. Prout said. “It’s the fault of the oil company.”
The mood inside the crowded, hot gymnasium was one of confusion and growing anxiety.
“We have bills to pay,” said Acy Cooper, the president of a local fishermen’s association. “I don’t care if it’s the federal government or BP, but someone needs to step up and compensate us.”
David Kinnaird, a project director for BP who is coordinating the company’s response in Venice, said BP would hire as many local workers as possible. “We’re not asking the community to do this work for nothing,” he said. “BP is willing to compensate them.”
But Mr. Kinnaird could not say when local fishermen would be hired, how much they would be paid or whether they would be compensated for their lost revenue.
The fishing industry is just now recovering from the hurricanes of recent years, said Billy Nungesser, president of Plaquemines Parish, where Venice is located. But he said the oil spill could be an even greater setback, potentially changing fishing conditions for years.
“This could be six Katrinas, where for years and years and years there’s not as much work,” he said. “These people have fished their entire lives. They don’t know anything else.”
Still, he said, his job requires balancing the area’s two dominant local industries. He urged federal officials to not let this disaster lead to less oil excavation in the Gulf of Mexico.
“Don’t overreact,” he said. “We don’t ground every plane every time one plane crashes.”
All skiffs were docked in their harbors Friday. A local seafood company, Sharkco, was selling its final 50 pounds of shrimp and had already been depleted of oysters and fish.
“Last shrimp for a long, long time,” yelled Kim Vo, the owner of Sharkco, to passing fishermen, who paid $3 a pound.
“This is for us to eat,” one fishermen said. “We can’t use it for bait. There’s not going to be any fishing around here for months.”
“First Katrina, then Ike, Gustav, the fishermen’s strike — and now this,” said Thi Lee, 35, whose husband lost his 45-foot skiff in Katrina and only recently restored a second skiff to working condition after it was battered by another hurricane.
“We have no idea what to do,” she said.
A group of fishermen who were gathered around a car in the Sharkco parking lot grew more agitated as they listened to radio reports about the worsening spill.
“This spill isn’t going to be fixed in a day, probably even in a year,” said Chuc Nguyen, 35, who emigrated from Vietnam as a child and has fished his entire life. “What else can I do? I don’t know how to read and write. If you tell me to do something other than fishing, I don’t even know what it would be.”
Chan Tran, a dock owner in Venice, said insurance had risen more than 200 percent since Hurricane Katrina. Insuring her fishing dock now costs $50,000 a year, and she planned on paying the bill due this summer with money from the sale of shrimp.
“I cannot sleep for two days,” she said. “I’m done for business.”