At first sight, the waters of the Florida Keys seem pristine, perfect for a good day’s fishing. But for some local lobster and crab fishermen, everything has changed since last spring.
“Disastrous, it is disastrous,” says Rafael López, 74, at the helm of Benny Boy III. “I’ve been catching lobsters in these waters for 31 years and I’ve never seen anything like this. My average was 1,000lb a day. Today, if I am lucky, I’ll catch 200lb.”
Mr López, like many local fishermen, blames the scarcity of lobster on ecological changes sparked by the explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig, which sent 170m gallons of crude oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico in April.
The lack of baby lobsters might be evidence that the spill has had an impact on reproduction and migratory patterns further south, they claim.
Even in south Florida, an area that was never directly affected by oil contamination, more than 10,000 businesses and individuals have filed claims or federal lawsuits against BP. Overall, complainants from Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas have filed more than half a million cases between them.
Mr López used to have two boats and five employees roaming the waters of the Florida Keys picking up wooden traps packed with lobsters and stone crabs. However, since the beginning of the season he has been forced to lay off three people and keep the bigger boat at the docks.
“BP has cost me tens of thousands of dollars,” says Mr López, who decided not to “get BP easily off the hook” by filing a claim whereby individuals can get a one-time payment of $5,000 and businesses $25,000 if they waive their rights to any future payments and agree not to sue the company. He instead opted to sue BP as an individual.
Most individual lawsuits, such as Mr López’s, have now been consolidated into multidistrict litigation, in which the work is handled by a single judge based in Louisiana.
“Anybody with a legitimate claim, somebody who can prove he or she has lost income or has damage, can take action,” explains Ervin González, a Miami-based attorney appointed to the plaintiffs’ steering committee for the oil spill litigation.
“You don’t have to have oil on your property or body in order to be entitled to file a claim, and that applies to the whole Gulf coast,” he adds.
But the majority of the Gulf residents have chosen the route of a one-time claim made through local offices opened along the coast by the Gulf Coast Claims Facility (GCCF), the body processing claims against BP’s $20bn compensation fund.
In Marathon Key, Nick Aldacosta is one of them and believes that, even if the oil spill has “drastically” affected both his businesses – a charter-fishing boat for tourists and a lobster restaurant – BP has been “trying to do the right thing”.
“What happened, it happened, but BP has been very friendly and co-operative with anybody who filed a claim. We cannot say enough good about these guys,” he says. He has received one cheque and a second one is due.
But some large businesses asking for more than $500,000 say they have not yet been paid at all.
Kenneth Feinberg, the GCCF’s administrator, said that in 16 weeks, he had processed more than 460,000 claims and paid about $2.5bn to about 170,000 individuals and businesses. “I am being much more generous than any court would ever be when evaluating the claims,” he says.
At the weekend, he said he hoped only half the $20bn fund put up by BP would be needed to meet claims for losses as a result of the spill.
“It remains to be seen, but I would hope that half that money would be more than enough to pay all the claims,” he told Bloomberg Television.
The Obama administration earlier last month said it would not allow offshore oil drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico or off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts as part of the next five-year drilling plan.
“These waters are my life. I am happy they are safeguarded now but the oil spill might affect me in years to come,” says Mr López.
“What if lobster won’t reproduce enough for the next season, or if they migrate somewhere else? What am I going to do?”