Abruptly unemployed fishermen struggling to get by
He hadn't been called to work that day, but he figured he'd come anyway and try to make some money. After five fruitless hours watching other commercial fishermen load up and ship out, he had no choice but to leave.
"I don't know how I'm gonna feed my family. I don't know how I'm gonna pay my bills. We live week to week," the dejected 37-year-old crabber from St. Bernard said — still unemployed, fishing grounds still off limits. "How do you go home and tell your child, 'You can't eat today because Daddy didn't make no money?'"
For watermen across the Gulf Coast, waiting is now a way of life. Waiting to see where the slick that began after the deadly April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig will land. Waiting for crab and shrimp zones to reopen. Waiting to make some money.
It's a scene reminiscent of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which tore through fishing villages and seafood harvesting waters in August 2005.
Rob Canty rushed his shrimp boat shortly after dawn to a dock in Venice, where BP PLC was distributing boom to keep the oil out of untainted waters and fragile estuaries. By noon, he and his crew still hadn't been sent out.
"It's a lot of hurry up and wait," said Canty, 30, who spends weeks away from his Slidell home 110 miles away to support his family.
Flurries of activity turned out to be nothing — a delivery of bottled water, then a shipment of protective Tyvek suits for the fishermen to wear. Canty fell into an ice bin where shrimp are usually stored, injuring his ribs and back, but still was ready to go.
Not surprising for a man who once closed a gash on his hand with Super Glue instead of returning to shore.
After a while, a man in a BP hard hat told Canty there would be no work that day. The message was the same the next day. The man in the hat didn't say why.
"I need the water," says 32-year-old Jason Guidry, who worked for Canty until about a month ago, when he cashed in his retirement savings and traded his new truck for a shrimp boat. Guidry lives three hours away from Venice in Osyka, Miss., and still comes out, not knowing whether he'll be hired.
Shrimp prices are high, he said, because a long-standing push to limit imports finally got results. That makes the waiting especially hard.
"Now the oil has screwed us royally," he said. "What are we supposed to do?"
On Saturday, BP scrapped plans to use a 100-ton concrete and metal box that was lowered 5,000 feet under the sea to cut off the blown out well. Icy slush clogged up the mechanism that officials had hoped would collect as much as 85 percent of the leaking oil.
Now BP officials are trying to find another solution to cap the well. Even if the company does, there's no telling when fishing will resume.
Dock owners who buy the seafood are struggling, too. Darlene Kimball, who owns Kimball's Seafood in Pass Christian, Miss., got only half the shrimp she wanted because people were stocking up. Now she's having a hard time unloading it — everyone thinks it's contaminated, she said.
The docks in her town are empty, save for a few fishermen working on their boats.
"A lot of people gonna lose every damn thing over this," said James Raffeo, 54, who manages the dock where boats would typically spend thousands of dollars a day on supplies, ice and diesel.
However, the fishermen and their families are on the front lines, the first to feel the squeeze.
George Jackson and his three-man crew retrieved 200 crab traps from near Breton Island, dumping blue crabs, stone crabs and mullet back into the sea because the waters have been closed to all fishing.
The 53-year-old from St. Bernard spent hours collecting his gear rather than laying boom. The gear is worth thousands of dollars — far more than he'd get paid helping with the spill.
He's also got a cushion: Jackson got a $5,000 check from BP within days of filing a lost income claim. Those claims are paid out based on how much the fishermen made the year before.
Plenty of others turned out for the work in Hopedale, where more than a dozen boats were eventually sent to lay 11,000 feet of boom. Most crews had no idea how much they would be paid, but said whatever comes in Friday's check is more than they'd otherwise earn.
"I either do this or starve," said Robert Graf, a 33-year-old crab dock operator from Violet.
Families like his have virtually no income, so Catholic Charities of New Orleans, Second Harvest Food Bank and a local philanthropist rushed into St. Bernard Parish to give away food, baby supplies and grocery store gift cards. Some parishes are helping families sign up for Medicaid and food stamps.
Laura Domingo and Nicole Melerine arrived two hours early. About 150 people gradually lined up behind them.
Last week's fishing was good for Melerine's husband, Jason, and the 22-year-old mother of four was able to pay most of her bills.
"We have a little extra, a couple dollars," she said, "but with him not working, that's what we are running on right now. But it's about to run out. I don't know what we're gonna do for the next week."
Adding to many people's frustration is seeing cars full of outsiders pull up — including firefighters that parishes have dispatched to help because they've already been trained to handle hazardous materials. Others seem to be coming from far away, hoping they can earn a few bucks.
Danny Sain, a 51-year-old crab boat deck hand from Hopedale, said it seems like fishermen are being squeezed out of the process, out of a livelihood — and maybe out of the area.
"There's not enough ChapStick in the world for the chap I got on my butt."
Associated Press writer Brian Skoloff contributed to this report.
Last updated: 1:53 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012