Louisiana Pushes BP for Fisherman Aid


SLIDELL, La.—Louisiana fisheries regulators are pushing a plan to lure thousands of idled commercial fishermen back onto the water by getting BP PLC to pay them a bonus on their catch.

While BP says it likes the plan, it is balking, explaining that it would rather wait until its leaking oil well in the Gulf is capped and more of Louisiana’s coastal waters are reopened to fishing as to avoid overcrowding.

“The program is not dead, but it’s still probably a month or half a month off,” said Harlon Pearce, chairman of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board, part of the state’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

The program, called Back to the Docks, proposes that BP pay Louisiana fishermen a percentage bonus in excess of the market price they get for their catch offin fish, crab, shrimp or other seafood in the state’s waters.

In theory, the program would benefit several parties. It would return fishermen to what they prefer to do, allow BP to pay less than it would otherwise by fully reimbursing fishermen who aren’t working and bolster the flow of Gulf seafood to U.S. restaurants. Louisiana fishermen annually catch one billion pounds of seafood worth roughly $272 million.

The size of the bonus hasn’t been determined, though Mr. Pearce of the seafood board mentioned 30%. BP spokesman Larry Thomas confirmed that 30% has been discussed, but added, “No one has agreed to a number.”

BP said it liked the concept of incentive programs to get fishermen fishing again, but it didn’t want to spark a rush of hundreds of boats to the few fishing areas that remained open. “There was some concern that there wouldn’t be enough fisheries open to fully realize the opportunity,” Mr. Thomas said.

Currently, 57% of Louisiana’s Gulf waters are closed to fishing, including most waters three miles into the Gulf and connected bayous and inlets. That number jumped beyond the 50% threshold when early July storms pushed tar balls, oil sheen and oil slicks into new areas, such as the Rigolets waterway leading into New Orleans’s Lake Pontchartrain. Some state regulators and fishermen say some of the closed waters are off-limits as a precautionary measure, and they will be ripe for fishing as soon as the restrictions are lifted.

Meanwhile, fishermen such as Jesse Vannenborre of Slidell sit idle. Mr. Vannenborre, a 26-year-old who has fished commercially since he was 14, cites several reasons he doesn’t take his skiffs onto the water and start dropping crab traps. Primarily, he says there isn’t enough fishing area open to justify the $3,000 expense of prepping his boats and cages and hiring deckhands because the areas that are open are overrun.

Despite the reduced harvesting, Gulf seafood prices are at about the same levels they were last summer because demand from across the U.S. has declined due to contamination fears, according to the seafood board. The exception is oysters, which cost at least 50% more.

Mr. Vannenborre insists Gulf crab prices have fallen due to reduced demand. Piloting one of his skiffs across part of Lake Pontchartrain open to fishing on Saturday, Mr. Vannenborre points out several rows of buoys marking other fishermen’s crab traps that are 120 feet apart. He said he typically would place his traps 800 to 1,200 feet apart to get an ideal catch.

“There’s three rows of traps in here where usually there is one,” he said as his skiff crossed under the Highway 11 bridge and into an unrestricted portion of Lake Pontchartrain. “And this right here really isn’t even a good spot.”

Mr. Vannenborre hasn’t harvested crabs since the state extended its fishing restrictions last week to parts of the lake and the Rigolets. In recent weeks, BP has reimbursed him for about 75% of what he would have earned in normal conditions. That, as well as the fishing restrictions and the cost of rigging his boats to fish, has kept him on the sidelines.

He and his father, charter-boat captain Dudley Vannenborre, registered a month ago for BP’s Vessels of Opportunity program to get paid for skimming oil, but neither has received a call yet. It is a common lament. Across the four-state coastal region, 8,858 fishing boats are registered for the program but only 3,061 are in use, according to the Unified Command Center in charge of spill response.

There are additional reasons the Vannenborres and others remain in the docks. Much of the 43% of Gulf waters that remain open are far away, including west of the Mississippi. Transporting a boat, crab cages and crews that far would take a week at prohibitive cost, they say. In addition, fishermen, especially crabbers, are territorial. Some will threaten or sabotage new arrivals in their waters.

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

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