BP payouts can't save fishing season that got away

GOLDEN MEADOW, La. Mon May 31, 2010 6:48pm IST

Oil impacts Redfish Bay in Louisiana's birdsfoot delta, where the Mississippi River empties into the Gulf of Mexico, May 27, 2010. REUTERS/Jeffrey Dubinsky/Gulf Restoration Network/Files

Oil impacts Redfish Bay in Louisiana's birdsfoot delta, where the Mississippi River empties into the Gulf of Mexico, May 27, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Jeffrey Dubinsky/Gulf Restoration Network/Files

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GOLDEN MEADOW, La. (Reuters) - Carol Terrebonne, a wholesale retailer who buys shrimp off the boats in southern Louisiana, laughs when asked about the $5,000 hardship payout she has received from energy giant BP to cushion the economic impact of the Gulf oil spill.

"It barely pays the power bill. I have two facilities and they have ice machines and cold storage," she said in her cramped roadside office, seated beneath pictures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.

As of Sunday, BP said 26,000 claims had been filed by commercial fishermen, angling guides and others who say they have lost income because of the six-week-old spill, which the White House says is probably the biggest environmental disaster in U.S. history.

Of those claims, 11,650 had been paid for a total of $35 million. Analysts say the British-based company, whose reputation and market value have been battered by the spill, faces billions of dollars in cleanup costs and damages claims.

As local fishermen rue the season that got away, BP says it is ready to pay more in their individual claims, but for now it is focused on what it calls "hardship payments" to help mitigate immediate loss of income.

"If they need more they can come back to us. These immediate hardship claims do not preclude the longer-term claims," said BP spokesman David Nicholas.

But anger over the process is mounting on several fronts in steamy bayou villages where shrimp boats sit idle and sports fishing guides while their extra time away in bars.

The anger focuses first on the amounts paid out so far, which many locals say is hardly enough to pay bills and make ends meet. Several locals who spoke to Reuters had received $5,000, but others said they had been given less.

"My understanding is that if you are a captain/guide and own a boat, you get $5,000, but if you are just a captain or just own a boat you get $2,500," said sport angling guide Alec Griffin, who specializes in fly fishing.

"I own the boat but it's still registered in the name of my friend who I bought it from, so I just got $2,500. It just helps to ease the sting from canceled trips," he said.

BUMPER YEAR WAS PREDICTED

Many locals are also upset that they have to present tax documentation and paperwork to show their income over the previous three years as a way to assess their losses in 2010.

The recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the economic recession and record-high fuel prices mean that the past few years have been lean ones for many.

Others have also only been working in their current occupations for a year, making it difficult to estimate income loss for this season.

Many were banking on this year as the "big one" as the economy recovers from recession. And for a number of reasons -- the lack of serious storms last year, the amount of winter rainfall -- fishing conditions this year looked superb.

"It would have been a good summer; the marsh was in good shape, there was lots of clean water," said Griffin.

In the New Orleans suburb of Belle Chasse, oysterman Kuzma Tesvich said he had had high hopes for 2010.

"Our crop was good. We expected a good season and a good year but after all this we don't know what's going to happen to our oysters out there in the water," he said.

He said he had received his $5,000 from BP but said he was making $2,000 a day before the spill closed down his 1,500-acre (600-hectare) oyster operation.

BP has said it is aware that recent years' earnings are below what some people could reasonably have expected to make this year. Last week, it said it would appoint an independent mediator to settle any disputes over claims that arise.

It has also said it will be flexible with people who don't have all of their paperwork in order.

Hundreds of Gulf Coast fishermen are also being paid by BP to help with its oil spill containment operations, which also clearly helps bridge some of the lost earnings gap.

But the notion of handouts is alien to the resilient people here, many of whom have a strong sense of independence.

"These people are self-employed, they are not used to being reduced to handouts and to looking for help," said Father Gerry, the Catholic priest in the bayou town of Port Sulphur.

(Additional reporting by Sarah Irwin in Belle Chasse, Louisiana, and Tom Bergin in Houston, Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Eric Walsh)

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