Gulf watermen grateful for BP's claims help — so far

McClatchy NewspapersMay 11, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Biloxi charter boat owner Troy Fountain usually runs fishing enthusiasts on his 60-foot boat Double Trouble out to the Chandeleur Islands — the epicenter, at the moment, of the gulf oil spill.

"It has shut my business down," said Fountain, who's aggravated that Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., said in the first days of the spill, "It's not Armageddon."

"For us, it is," said Fountain. "It has shut my business down."

The people who make their living off the water — shrimpers, oystermen and charter boat operators — on the Gulf of Mexico are wondering, worst case, if they'll even have a livelihood after the spill. But in the meantime, they are finding BP's claims process — and initial payments up to $5,000 — a welcome, if not certain, bounty.

Fountain, 43, has filed a claim and gotten $5,000 from BP, the operator of the leaking oil rig. He has also joined the company's "vessels of opportunity" program, which is hiring fishing and charter boats — more than 700 so far — to help with the cleanup. Payments range from $1,200 a day to $3,000 a day, depending on the boat's length, with crewmembers making $200 a day and more.

Fountain appreciates the company's outreach. However, he said, "This can't last forever."

No one, even BP, knows how much it will cost or how long it will take. On Tuesday, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., asked BP America chief Lamar McKay bluntly at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing, "Will BP pay?"

McKay repeated what the company has been saying: "We are going to pay all legitimate claims."

Already, the company has paid more than $3.5 million in claims, with watermen lining up at the claim centers in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama. And BP has repeatedly said it doesn't consider the legal liability limit of $75 million to be "relevant."

"Everything is a learning curve," said shrimp boat owner Steve Bosarge of Pascagoula, Miss. "BP has stepped up to the plate and taken the needs of fishermen very seriously."

Bosarge, who owns four trawlers and a processing facility, said the spill, and the shutdown of fishing in federal waters, "pretty well shut us down."

Several of the captains of his vessels have applied for the $5,000 claim. "That's enough money that these guys can catch up on their bills," he said.

Tom Becker, who heads the local charter boat association in Biloxi, said that his members could still take boats out to 25 miles but "all we're getting are cancellations."

Oysterman Mike Voisin of Houma, La., a board member of the Gulf Oyster Industry Council, said that the Bayou State shutdown of 11 of 30 oyster harvesting industry zones "has created shortage and uncertainty for families that depend on that — the captains, deckhands, boat owners — to the people that shuck the oysters to the people who drive the trucks."

Voisin credits BP for setting up a claims system — "I believe them."

But Bosarge, the Mississippi shrimp boat operator, is very worried about the long term.

"I've done this all my life," said Bosarge. "My dad was in the seafood industry. This is the first time in my life I don't see a light at the end of the tunnel."

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