Idle fishing boat

Idle fishing boat in Venice, Louisiana. (Michael Whitney/Firedoglake)

Alabama fishermen used a half-dozen boats to prevent access to the Mississippi Sound in an early morning blockade to protest BP’s unfair hiring practices yesterday. The fishermen, who’ve been idled by the massive ban on fishing in the oiled waters of the Gulf of Mexico, say BP is hiring far more recreational boaters than commercial fishermen in its cleanup efforts. The Press-Register reports:

A handmade sign that read “Commercial 1st We need work now” hung from one of the vessels idling in the waterway. A smaller gray boat was spray-painted with bright orange letters “44 days still pumping BP lied.”

At least two boats were blocked from passing through the mouth of the Bayou before police and other authorities asked the men to end the blockade or face arrest.

At issue, according to those there, is that recreational boat owners are being hired before those who make their livelihoods solely from fishing local waters.

When asked about the protest, BP officials emailed this statement: “We are adjusting the vessels of opportunity program to give priority to commercial vessels and fisherman. We are working diligently to resolve any issues VOO operators may have.”

The owner of the boat with the orange message, Brent Buchanan, was taken from the docks in handcuffs by local police about an hour after the protest began at 5 a.m. His two sons watched from a small pier a few feet away.

BP seems to admit that it failed to give priority to commercial fishermen with its statement that the company is “adjusting” how it hires boats for its cleanup operation. That’s nice, but in addition to “adjusting” how it hires, BP might also want to actually use those whom it does hire.

Several fishermen at the protest said that while they had been hired by BP, they never actually did any work. “Wait by the phone” were the instructions given to at least two fishermen whose phones never rang.

Ray Foster, 62, who owns the trawler Miss Joyce, docked his wooden-hulled boat across from the others in a show of solidarity Wednesday morning. “I ain’t against nobody making money,” Foster said, “but I think BP ought to put all our commercial fishermen’s boats to work.”

Foster, of Heron Bay, who was hired by BP through its vessels of opportunity program, said he and his crew were on standby for 14 days and submitted an invoice for payment. That was more than a week ago. “They told me to stand by the phone,” Foster said. As of Wednesday morning, more than nine days later, he hadn’t been called back to work or paid for his service. “I need to go to work.”

Several other fishermen at the docks Wednesday, including Philip Seaman and Michael Sprinkle, of Irvington, said they are still waiting on checks from BP for two weeks of work.

“They hired me for 14 days,” Sprinkle said. “They’ve got boats that have been working for 30 days.” [...]

Sprinkle said he has spent hours calling BP phone numbers to find out when he’ll get paid or get work again: “They said be patient and wait by the phone.”

Not only are fishermen in the Gulf region desperate for work after BP’s oil disaster ruined their waters, and not only is BP apparently giving preference to recreational boats over professional fishermen, but the company is neither using nor paying those it did hire.

I heard similar stories about idled boats while in Louisiana. While several fishermen and boat owners did go out on the waters in oil containment efforts, a good number were idled without any direction from BP. The Administration claimed yesterday that “more than 1,900 vessels are responding on site” in the cleanup. Are all of those active? Or do they include the idled fishermen who organized the blockade?

Meanwhile, fishermen and other Alabamans are anxious with an evidently impotent federal government in the shadow of BP. The Washington Post reports from a town meeting:

The crowd was several hundred jittery Alabamians, many with the deep tans that marked them as commercial shrimpers or oystermen. They had come to a community meeting that promised to “help provide answers” about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. [...]

“Please respect our experts,” said moderator Ann Weaver, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “when they tell you they don’t know the answers to your questions.”

Don’t be mad when we can’t help you.

As it turned out, it was the right advice for the event. [...]

“People are not looking for I-don’t-knows,” said Alex Jones, 25, a Mobile area resident, later, after he had walked out. “They’re looking for answers, because they need money.”

The best/worst part? Questions for BP are to be submitted on index cards to the company.

Another question from the audience: Why is BP hiring outsiders instead of local fishermen to do cleanup work in Alabama? The officials on the panel didn’t know: That was a question for BP. They asked people to write down questions on cards, and promised to deliver them to the oil company.

It’s increasingly evident that BP just isn’t capable of organizing the massive scale of personnel and resources required to adequately respond to the increasingly massive oil disaster. The task of organizing cleanup crews, fishermen with boats, and the other vast human resources along the Gulf Coast may be better suited for the Army, National Guard, or other military organization already on the scene, but clearly not in charge. If it’s a question of payment, the Obama Administration demonstrated it’s clearly capable of just sending BP the bill.

Until BP gets its act together, expect similar acts of outrage, and solidarity, from fishermen and other Gulf residents. Things are getting ugly by the hour, and there needs to be a significantly better way to deal with the human toll of this disaster. And it shouldn’t be BP’s face doing it.

Thanks to cbl2 for the tip on this story.

Sign our petition to the Senate: make BP pay every penny for its destruction of the Gulf.

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