Uncertainty, like the Gulf’s waters, ebbs and flows in this fishing village in Louisiana’s southern reaches.
Shortly after the oil began gushing more than three months ago, fishing was banned in vast areas of the Gulf of Mexico, and many of the local fishermen in this rustic town of 500 residents didn’t know where their next paycheck would come from.
Then came stability, when BP started paying up to $1,500 a day for fisherman to perform the gritty work of scooping gunk from the surface of the Gulf.
Now, as a cap on the busted well has kept oil from leaking for more than two weeks and as a permanent capping starts this weekend, uncertainty has returned.
“I don’t believe it’s only been 100 days,” said Quan Truong, 40, one of many fishermen who worry that their only source of income these days will vanish. “In my heart it feels like more.”
As early as Sunday night, the oil giant will take the first steps to stuff the well full of cement.
The disappearing oil is cause for concern for workers like Truong as the signs of a scaled-back cleanup force, offshore and on land, are visible throughout the Gulf coast.
At one point there were as many as 1,600 private boats — labeled “vessels of opportunity” by BP — working off the shores of Florida, Alabama and Mississippi. That number has now dropped to about 300, though more than a 1,000 continue to patrol the shores of Louisiana, which has been the hardest-hit state.
Along Pensacola Beach, one of Florida’s most affected areas, 800 workers comb the soft sands for tar balls — down from 1,600 last week.
And miles of boom continue to be removed throughout Florida’s Panhandle, with state Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael W. Sole announcing on Thursday that Florida would begin “rightsizing the response effort.”
“The capping of the well and progress toward permanent well-kill have reduced the threat of oil to Florida’s shores and sensitive environments,” Sole said in a statement. “We will now begin the cautious and measured rightsizing of protective measures to help Florida’s residents and communities start the road to recovery.”
BP officials insist they will continue to keep on the payroll the fishermen and boat captains assisting with cleanup, though their hours and wages may be reduced as they rotate two-week work shifts among the vessels of opportunity. So far, the fisherman and charter captains are receiving the same wages as before, whether on rotation working or waiting to work.
“The numbers will be fewer as we need fewer people, but we will keep people working as much as we can,” said BP spokesman Ray Melick.
He encouraged fishermen, even those getting paid by BP to staff the offshore cleanup, to continue filing compensation claims with the company.
Still, filing a claim does little to ease the financial frustrations of fisherman like Truong.
Before the spill, on a good two days out at sea, he could reel in nets brimming with $5,000 worth of shrimp. Now, he makes about half of that in the same period laying down boom to capture the oil.
“I want to be out there making money the way I use to, not waiting here,” Truong said, sitting near his boat the Tina Vo.
The modest boat, stacked with oil-stained yellow boom and bags of oily rags, was docked as Truong waited to be called on to help with the cleanup. It had been a week since he last got a call.
Even as more surface oil is scooped, burned, or munched by marine bacteria, workers may also be able to find work removing the nearly 11 million feet of boom still framing less affected waterways throughout Florida, Alabama and Mississippi.
“We’re working on a boom recovery strategy which will require yet another all-hands-on-deck effort, especially by our vessels of opportunity,” Coast Guard Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft, the federal on-scene coordinator, said earlier this week.
Along the wood-plank docks of Venice Marina, where wooden carved signs proudly boast “Fishing Capital of the World,” it’s not just the loss of livelihood that has many of the fisherman worried. They are also concerned about possible future health complications from scorching days spent riding in oil- and chemical-dispersant filled waters.
“Nobody can really say what’s going to happen to us,” Lazaro Carvajal, 39, said as he put a coat of white paint on his fishing boat, the Miss Christie. He hoped the paint would brighten up the oil-stained boat.
“Do I think about what could happen to me?” Carvajal said. “Of course. But I try not to. I have to think about surviving for today, getting paid today.”
Though aereal surveys of the Gulf Coast show diminishing oil slicks, Carvajal has spent the last three months navigating the polluted waters, and says much still lies below the surface.
As for the crews picking up sticky patches of tar from beaches, they may not be as lucky finding future work with BP, since those positions were advertised as temporary.
“Right now we’re not letting anyone go,” said Melick, BP’s spokesman. “They just might have fewer hours since there’s not as much work compared to when we were at the height of the problem, but eventually that’s where we’re headed. Even my job won’t be here.’