GRAND BAYOU, La. – Most decisions about the details of a huge class-action settlement of damage claims from the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill will come from stately offices and a federal courtroom in New Orleans.
But the consequences will reach farther south, where Louisianans – many of them subsistence fishermen – count on swampy bayous and gray Gulf waves for their livelihood, and are struggling to support themselves on catches they say have dwindled to a fifth of their pre-spill numbers.
“It just ain’t there anymore,” said Maurice Phillips, a 58-year-old fisherman and trapper from Grand Bayou who traces his ancestry to the region’s first Native American residents.
Phillips is one of hundreds of fishermen who must decide by Thursday whether his share of a proposed $2.3 billion settlement fund will make up for the losses he suffered when BP’s Macondo well spilled millions of gallons of crude oil into the waters where he and his family have fished for generations.
The Seafood Compensation Program fund is part of a larger proposed settlement between BP and Gulf Coast residents who suffered economic or health damages from the spill.
It would compensate seafood vessel owners, commercial fishermen and their crews for damages suffered from April 20, 2010, when the Macondo well blew out, to April 16 of this year.
In the beginning of October, a court-supervised clearinghouse reported that it had received 7,115 claims and had made $105 million in offers to about 700 claimants, half of whom had accepted the payments at that point.
Under the Oil Pollution Act, a company that spills oil – in this case, BP – must compensate for economic damages caused by the spill.
The fate of the Gulf Coast fishermen – and the extent of their current and future damages – is one of the central questions facing U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier as he begins a hearing Nov. 8 into whether the proposed settlement is fair.
Sees a big rebound
In an August defense of the proposed settlement, BP lawyers argued that the shellfish industry has rebounded almost completely to its pre-spill level, citing testimony from Henry Fishkind, an economist who frequently provides expert testimony on business and tourism data.
“2011 shrimp harvests are in line with pre-spill years,” Fishkind wrote in a declaration that BP used as support for its claim that the spill had no negative effect on Gulf shrimp populations.
Fishkind used data on shrimp catches in 2010, comparing them with 2007 through 2009. He said provisions in the settlement that set the losses at 35 percent are generous, based on industry data.
Gulf fishermen, however, say the 2011 and 2012 shrimp seasons have been much worse, attributing the falloff to harm done the crustaceans by dispersants used to break up and sink the spilled oil.
“We are finding shrimp with big sores on them,” said Wayne Guidry, a 51-year-old deckhand from Galliano. “It’s something I never saw in all my life, and I’ve been working these boats since I was a kid. It’s scary.”
Catches down sharply
Shrimp boat dock landing data from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries indicates that catches in the fall 2011 and spring 2012 shrimping seasons dropped as much as 50 percent, said Joel Waltzer, a New Orleans lawyer representing many of the fishermen.
The fishermen fear that the shrimp and oyster populations in South Louisiana will go the way of the once-ubiquitous herring in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, still absent two decades after the tanker Exxon Valdez spilled oil there.
“They don’t understand the shrimp and oysters are never going to come back,” said Chad Phillips, a 30-year-old fisherman from Grand Bayou who grew up shrimping with his father and brother. “All that dispersant they put in the water to sink the oil down, it keeps washing up on the beach. The shrimp is a bottom feeder – that stuff is going to kill it.”
Whatever their losses may be, getting compensation under the proposed settlement presents further challenges for people better equipped to navigate murky coastal waterways than legal channels.
Their traditional economy is cash-based, but the settlement requires tax forms and proof of income based on trip tickets – documents issued by the docks that serve as the link between fishermen and commercial purchasers.
Fishermen who can provide the paperwork can expect two to five years of income in compensation.
Lack of paperwork
Those who can’t will get far less, perhaps because they made cash deals independent of the docks.
“A lot of the old fishermen sold for cash and don’t have trip tickets,” said Sean Phillips, a 45-year-old fisherman from Port Sulphur. “They don’t sell to the docks, and right now it’s bad for them. You can say you sold $30,000 of shrimp before the oil spill, but it was all cash profit. If you don’t have the paperwork, you don’t have nothing.”
Waltzer has argued that the seafood settlement should include a bottom threshold, guaranteeing some payment to the poorest fishermen who otherwise might be shut out.
“One of our big concerns is that if you do something that rewards based on your record, you reward the lucky,” Waltzer said. “The fishermen who don’t make enough to pay taxes recover basically nothing, and never will, regardless of unfolding events or even a fishery collapse.”
Those in fishing communities close to the spill have also complained that the settlement’s compensation formula – a flat percentage of claimed losses – doesn’t reflect the disproportionate damage done to the catch in their areas.
The bigger question
By Thursday, claimants in the seafood industry must decide whether to accept whatever payment the settlement may bring if Judge Barbier approves it, or opt out and gamble that they can fare better pursuing individual lawsuits.
But for the Gulf Coast fishermen, the larger question looms of whether the disaster dealt their lifestyle a fatal blow.
“This is one of the last true fishing bayou communities in the world,” Maurice Phillips said. “I’m going to be 59 years old. What am I going to do five, six, 10 years down the road? The same thing happened in Alaska, and the people never got back right. That’s all I do – shrimp and trap. I don’t have no education to go work in the oil field or an office. This is what the Good Lord gave me. I’m a commercial fisherman.”