Seafood Surprise: Eyeless Shrimp, Crabs with Lesions – and Bigger Final Settlement Offers from BP


Against a backdrop of damaged fisheries and a looming oil spill trial, BP is doubling “final settlement” offers to commercial crabbers and shrimpers who have had their livelihoods destroyed by the Gulf oil spill. It seems BP has joined the rest of the world in realizing the once-thriving Gulf seafood industry is in tatters, and will remain that way for years. Although on its face the announcement of fairer compensation for fishermen is good news, we need to look at the motivation and timing behind the move to fully grasp BP’s long-term strategy. And I’ll give you a hint: It’s not about BP finally trying to do the right thing.

For starters, BP hasn’t changed its hardline position as to why the seafood industry is in a free fall. The oil giant has accepted no blame, as it continues to shrug off the overwhelming body of evidence – drastically depleted catches, pervasive marine life deformities and mass die-offs – that indicates grave biological damage to our fisheries. Dumping 200 million gallons of oil and 2 million gallons of toxic dispersant into the water will do that. But nobody ever accused BP of letting reality get in the way of its arguments or logic (if that’s the right word).

BP hasn’t strayed from its long-held “perception” position. That is, there’s nothing wrong with the seafood or the fisheries, it’s just a public perception problem. Claims czar Kenneth Feinberg stuck to BP’s talking points when making the “fairer settlements” announcement on Wednesday (Nov. 30): “It is not biological, it is more market-driven. We see no evidence in the Gulf that there is long-term biological impact.”

Clearly, the denial campaign rolls on.

But what about the 500-plus dead dolphins? What about the crabs being pulled up from the seafloor with oil stains, burns and lesions? What about the record number of dead sea turtles? What about the worst white shrimp season in half a century with catches down a whopping 80 percent across the board? And the shrimp that are showing up without eyes – what do we make of those recent reports? Consider this from Clint Guidry, president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association: “Fishermen are bringing up shrimp without any eyes…they evidently have lost their eyes and they’re still alive. …It tells me something’s wrong.”

You think?

As far as I can tell, local fishermen have never come across eyeless shrimp before. One Gulf Coast shrimper posted this as a CNN iReport: “I can say that I haven’t seen anything like this before. My family has been commercial fishermen for 5 generations near Grand Isle and I was a fisherman right out of high school.”

So despite all the evidence to the contrary, BP continues to say with a straight face that this is a perception problem, nothing more. You have to ask yourself, why would BP double the final settlements for shrimpers and crabbers if public perception and not the worst oil spill in U.S. history is to blame for the bottom falling out of the seafood industry? Hmmmmmmm.

Sadly, yet all too predictably, it all comes back to BP’s long-term strategy of limiting its liability, which of course is code for paying spill victims as little as possible. The most efficient way of doing that is to handle the economic damages of victims, in this case crabbers and shrimpers, through the $20 billion compensation fund being administered by Mr. Feinberg. The best-case scenario for BP would be for all spill victims to accept a final settlement from the Gulf Coast Claims Facility. In accepting a final settlement, victims must sign away their legal right to sue BP for any future damages. That buttons things up pretty nicely for the oil company when we’re talking about damage that could linger for as long as a decade.

Did I mention that the trial for those victims who forgo a final settlement and instead opt to sue the oil giant is set for February 2012? Attorneys for both sides are deep into the preparation phase. So what we see here is BP taking a run at keeping shrimpers and crabbers out of court – sweetening the claims pot in the 11th hour. BP and its attorneys fully understand that even after doubling final settlement payments, they will end up paying victims much more if these cases go to trial.

So what looks like good news at first glance is really just more of the same liability-limiting maneuvering from the folks at BP.

Read the Associated Press report on the claims announcement:

See CNN video of just how bad its gotten for Gulf shrimpers:

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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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