The smell of sausage jambalaya and sea air still mix inside the wood-paneled bait shop near the local docks, where 70-year-old Anita Jowers has watched fishermen quarrel for years over the little things.
These days, there has been a lot of yelling about a thing people say doesn’t mix: BP and local politics. And both the temperature and the temperaments have been scorching.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,” Jowers said. “There’s are a lot of worried people on this bayou.”
The issue: The mayor’s plan to have the city oversee BP’s Vessels of Opportunity program, which had enlisted 600 local fishermen to assist with oil spill cleanup. BP officials are on board, but those who once spent their days catching oysters and shrimp fear their new jobs will be entangled with favoritism and local squabbles. They are not sure who is more trustworthy: a global corporation or the local government.
With BP having capped the once-gushing well and entering into the final stages of cleanup, the question has become even more relevant for local fishermen. If reports that the oil won’t flow any more are accurate, fewer and fewer will be called out to do cleanup work, which has brought a newfound feeling of wealth to this rural town. They want to make sure people are selected fairly.
“No one wants to be out of work,” said Chris Bryant, who has been protesting the city’s heightened involvement. “We don’t want bad blood to influence anything. BP? They don’t know anything about us.”
Local governments such as those in Orange Beach, Ala., and Pass Christian, Miss,. have all gotten more involved in the cleanup process as the crisis has worn on, with various degrees of success.
In Bayou La Batre, population 3,159, the planned move has led to two protests that drew hundreds.
Bryant said there’d be even more if jobs and reputations weren’t so fragile here.
“I got a call from a withheld number from someone saying that if I kept it up, I’d lose my job,” Bryant said. “I left town yesterday afternoon, and seriously started wondering if my house would be burned to the ground when I got back. No one has seen anything like this before.”
Only one state road can get you into Bayou La Batre, a place so known for its shrimping that Bubba, the Forrest Gump character who effusively listed all the ways to cook shrimp, was supposed to be from here. Trailers sit on the same red-dirt roads as large plantation homes. In a scene from the Oscar-winning movie, as people yelled, “Run, Forrest, run,” actor Tom Hanks sped across those same clay roads.
But for a place called “The Seafood Capital of Alabama,” there’s a surprising lack of seafood restaurants.
“People couldn’t afford that type of restaurant,” said Andrea Hill, a local social services worker. “A lot of people live off what they catch. So we’re waiting for the King to come. We always hear rumors about Burger King.”
In 2003, the Bayou Bait and Tackle Shop was opened by the docks to give local fishermen a place to pick up cigarettes, sausage and shrimp bait during their breaks.
“When’s the last time we sold shrimp bait here, Ms. ‘Nita?” Gary Barbour asked as he stocked ice.
“I believe it had to be June 1,” Jowers, the cashier, said. “We used to sell 3,000, 4,000 pounds. Now we’re selling these T-shirts.”
The shirts, going for $13.95, say “Tar Balls Are Far Worse than Blue Balls.”
The fishing village has become an oil town. When two stray kittens arrived at the store, they were named “Obama” and “BP.”
BP’s checks brought the best living that some had ever had. About 22 percent of families are below the poverty line, according to census data. One in four locals didn’t get past ninth grade — many choosing to forgo their education to work on the water.
The men on the dock tell stories about the fools who think they’ve struck oil by searching for oil. They are buying new cars with their new money and putting additions on homes.
Life here had long been simpler. Residents built ships. They caught shrimp and coveted little. Now the traditional town faces an uncertain future. Some worry this spill was the first part of a bigger plan, by man or God or a demon, to alter the way of life.
At the local community action agency, the number of clients has doubled, as have the number of police calls. They blamed it on the new normal.
“Shrimp towns are in danger,” said homemaker Lori Bosarge, 49, who has taken to painting to express her sadness. “It’s just a matter of time before the carpetbaggers come in and start pushing out the poor people.”
WHO GETS CONTRACTS?
Others wondered if the big checks were going to the right people. Recreational fisherman were getting contracts with BP, while some who fished for a living couldn’t get jobs.
Amy LaForce, who caught shrimp and oysters, said she watched boats working for BP that had not been used since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“There’s got to be a fairer way to do this,” LaForce said. “You had doctors, lawyers, all these people going out and making the money. Maybe the city can do a better job.”
Mayor Stan Wright tried to correct that. First, he got BP to agree to have the city and nonprofits identify and sign up local people to put them into the vessels program. Then, a city-approved contractor — who has already been chosen — would handle day-to-day operations at the docks.
That means the contractor decides who goes out, when and for how long.
BP would still pay the workers — and have the final say over hiring or firing.
BP’s representatives have said they agree with the principle of asserting more local control at the docks. But they also want nonprofits to be involved.
“These are the people who know the waters best,” said Matt Kissinger, the program’s logistics director.
MATTER OF FAIRNESS
Some worry that Wright, the mayor, has too many conflicts of interest. His brother works as a supervisor with the chosen contractor. He knows who has opposed him in elections. Wright, who is known around these parts as “Boss Hog,” is a straight-talking man who has pictures in the city chambers of himself hunting turkeys. He insists the only way to institute fairness is to have locals overseeing operations.
“The people who are angry about this either can’t pass our drug test, are already receiving disability checks or have multiple boats out there working,” Wright said. “I’m sick of people using Bayou La Batre as their crutch. . . . We have local fishermen who are sitting at home, not knowing what’s going on, and they need to be working.”
Fishermen like Avery Bates fear favoritism and retribution. With cleanup work beginning to shrink, they find themselves in an in-between moment they hope won’t cause any more pressure.
“We don’t need a system of brother this, cousin that,” said Bates, 60. “How are we going to be treated fairly? We don’t need government agencies coming in and doing this work for us. We can do it ourselves.”
“I don’t know if our lives are ever coming back,” Bates said. “So if I don’t shrimp ever again, I want to be treated well.”