Commercial fishermen have difficulty getting into Vessels of Opportunity program


Almost since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill began, commercial fishermen have complained that BP wouldn’t hire them for its Vessels of Opportunity program.

Local slots were filled instead by people with pleasure boats, the commercial side complained. Anecdotal evidence seemed to prove them right, as any given day, dozens of small sport fishing boats, even ski boats, could be seen plying Mobile Bay and the Gulf of Mexico on BP’s payroll.

BP has said that the program provides a way for people affected by the spill to earn money.

Boat owners are paid between $1,200 and $3,000 a day depending on the length of their boats, and crewmembers are paid $200 a day. Most boat crews end up riding around searching for oil so that skimmers and other cleanup vessels can be dispatched.

In recent weeks, more commercial fishing boats have been on the water, according to state officials, BP representatives and an informal, on-the-water survey by the Press-Register.

“We’ve begun trying to weed out the recreational vessels,” said BP’s Ray Melick. “Initially, when the call went out, a lot of the commercial boats were reluctant to join in and the recreational guys flocked to the program. Then, as the waters began to be closed to fishing, the commercial guys started wanting in. We’re trying to accommodate them now.”

In a Wednesday interview with the Press-Register, state Rep. Spencer Collier, R-Irvington, complained about the difficulty that commercial fishermen were having getting hired. He also talked of a spike in commercial license sales once BP began to insist that commercial boats fill its program.

Hundreds of people have applied for commercial licenses since the spill began. For instance, 163 people have applied for commercial hook and line licenses since late April, compared to 151 license holders in the six months before the spill, state records show.

In fact, most of those people applied for licenses after much of the Gulf was closed to fishing, the records show.

Likewise, commercial license applications for shrimp boats, crab boats and charter boats have all nearly doubled since the spill began.

“I do know its been a problem with the recreational anglers buying commercial licenses after they were deactivated,” Melick said.

BP is now working from a state-provided list of people who held commercial licenses prior to the beginning of the spill.

“We offered them that list in our first meeting about a week after the spill began,” said Vernon Minton, head of the state Marine Resources division. “They said they didn’t need it. Then they called and asked for it two weeks ago. We could have avoided this whole problem and had the commercial guys on the water from the start.”

Melick acknowledged the delay was avoidable, and regrettable.

“We are not taking any commercial licenses that were purchased after March 31. We’re also trying to make sure the people we are using have at least 51 percent of their livelihood from the sea,” Melick said. “It’s not a perfect system, but we’re trying to get it smoothed out and help these people.”

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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