BP Oil Spill One Year Later: Black Oystermen Struggle to Hold On

The wait for financial compensation is taking both a financial and emotional toll.

Posted: 04/19/2011 11:21 PM EDT
Filed Under BP Oil Spill

BP oil spill

Commercial fisherman Stanley Encalade, who stays busy by fixing up his boats while he waits for oyster season to open, had his oyster beds impacted by oil and freshwater diversion projects that attempted to keep oil away from the coast. He struggles to contain his anger at BP PLC and oil spill claims czar Kenneth Feinberg, whom he believes is not doing enough to help him get back on his feet. (Photo: AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

There is an old saying that bad things happen in threes. Louisiana’s Black fishermen regrouped in 1992 after many of their oyster bed leases were washed away during the Caernarvon Freshwater Diversion Project. In 2005, business was at an all-time high and oystermen like Stanley Encalade, 51, who has spent 30-plus years building up his family’s business, were earning $100,000 per year. Then Hurricane Katrina struck, devastating the entire state.

No matter; these men and their families are some of the most resilient people on Earth and 2010 was going to be their year. It was the start of the five-year mark when oyster beds reach prime condition, and the per-pound price of oysters was as sweet as the meat contained in their shells. Encalade was filled with optimism. The business was well on the way back to its pre-Katrina high, and had even expanded to include Encalade Trucking, which hauled seafood from the docks to wholesale companies for shipment around the world. Then the BP Deepwater Horizon exploded, blowing most if not all of the Black fishermen’s businesses to smithereens and millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

“The spill shut us down; I got very depressed when it happened,” said Encalade, who one year later still feels that way. But more than anything else, he’s angry over the inequitable and sometimes callous way the Black fishermen have been treated during the compensation claims process.

His company has so far received an interim payment of $70,000, while some fishermen who own just one boat have received up to $80,000 to $90,000. Encalade personally has received $12,000 in emergency funds, which he says is a slap in the face.

“Charity is paying the insurance on my truck and light bill and I’m on food stamps. Can’t make it without them; how else am I going to eat?” he said. “But I don’t want anybody to give me nothing. I‘ve worked my whole life and I had a life before this oil spill. I wasn’t on food stamps or welfare. Between Katrina and the [BP disaster] I paid cash for a 2008 pickup truck, so I was doing damn good.”

Part of the formula for calculating compensation includes a look at income earned during 2007-2009, when most fishermen were still rebuilding their businesses after Katrina. Encalade, who has an eighth-grade education, kept the same careful business records expected of any white-collar professional. He’s submitted documentation of his pre-hurricane earnings that provides a more realistic measure by which to gauge his true income. Too frustrated to even step foot in the claims center, Encalade has turned the matter over to an attorney. He talks about it though, to ease the stress.

Next month he’ll try his hand at shrimp fishing, but with the price of diesel fuel so high, “and everybody and their mama getting ready to troll for shrimp,” he suspects it won’t be very profitable because the market will be flooded. So, as he struggles to hold onto his business, Encalade worries about his future.

“Where am I going to go get a job and make $60,000 to $100,00 a year? All I can do is hope that in a year or two it will all turn around,” he said. “But one year has gone by already and I’m not paying into Social Security or retirement,” he said. “Time is ticking and I’m pissed. I have two nephews and a son in Iraq and Afghanistan fighting for somebody else to have a quality life and over here, somebody’s taking mine from me.”

Related reading:

One Year Later: The BP Oil Spill in Pictures

BP Compensates Strippers While Legitimate Fishing Businesses Wait for Payment

Displaced Black Fishermen Still Can’t Find Jobs