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Louisiana oystermen worry that BP payout won't be enough

By Dana Hedgpeth
Sunday, June 20, 2010; A02

PORT SULPHUR, LA. -- It sounds like a bottomless gusher of money: a $20 billion fund to help make Gulf Coast residents and businesses whole. But here in the bayou, where rich oyster beds have provided livelihoods to many and brought wealth to a few, people worry just how far BP's handouts will go.

"They may satisfy the shrimpers and crabbers, but for the oystermen, they don't realize how much money it is going to take if this becomes a long-term effect," said Mitchell Jurisich, 47, a third-generation Croatian American oysterman who's done well for himself helping oversee a business that rakes the mollusks out of these brackish waters.

The $5,000 claim checks that BP has already given out have largely gone to fishermen, deckhands and captains, Jurisich and other oystermen point out. The $20 billion fund may be enough to pay off the little guys or small-boat owners whom President Obama promised to look after. But what about the not-so-little guys and salespeople? What about the kings of the oyster trade such as Jurisich and the man he sells his catch to -- Eddie Kurtich, who's spent 40 years building himself a booming business as an oyster broker?

Kurtich, 66, works as a middleman selling shellfish by the tractor-trailer-load to shucking houses, seafood distributors and restaurants in Alabama, Kent Narrows along Maryland's Eastern Shore, and others in Virginia, Texas, Florida and North Carolina. He, along with a few partners and other Croatians in the area, lease about one-quarter of the 400,000 state-owned acres available for oystering in southern Louisiana.

He is one of the most successful members of a business run largely by immigrants from Croatia and their offspring.

With a full head of white hair and a round face, Kurtich -- who sports two gold chains and a chunky 18-karat gold ring with a circle of white diamonds surrounding a single brown diamond -- seems content with success in his first-floor office in his Mediterranean-style home near the bayou. Right now, though, in the heart of the oyster harvesting season, he can't figure out how much of that $20 billion he's owed.

"How do you calculate for what you don't know yet?" asked Kurtich, who speaks in a deep voice with an accent that's a mix of Croatian and Cajun. "Your livelihood could be in jeopardy for one, two, three years or maybe seven or eight. God only knows."

Ever-changing losses

It's complicated to figure out how much he should claim from BP. Should he estimate lost income to date? And how should he factor in what he'll make when many of the now-closed waterways reopen? Should he try to figure out what he could potentially lose a year or two from now if his oyster beds are ruined by oil, dispersants or too much fresh water (which is being pumped into canals to keep the oil away but threatening to upset the delicate mix of salinity needed for oysters)? Another tricky factor is the price of oysters: Before the spill, they were averaging $25 per 100-pound sack; now they're at a high of $35.

Any calculation of loss that he and others come up with will need to be proved to BP. But a lot of deals in the oyster business are made through handshakes and long-term agreements. Kurtich keeps his business contacts from the past 40 years in a red address book held together with tape and a rubber band. His wife works at a small table, across from his daughter, who sits at a computer helping to track bookkeeping. It is not a corporate boardroom.

He has a small insurance policy for about $300 a year that covers his oyster beds, which he says is similar to crop insurance for farmers. He bought it this spring before the spill.

The son of a Croatian farmer, Kurtich came in the 1960s to this town of 3,100 named for the sulfur that used to be processed and transported from here. A close-knit community of about 1,500 Croatians lives in the surrounding area of Plaquemines Parish. Some of them are third- and fourth-generation oystermen.

Kurtich's success story has been one of hard work and steady growth: He started at his cousin's grocery store as a bag boy. On the weekends, he'd hustle, making $15 a day in tips. He eventually bought two businesses from his wife's uncle: a convenience store and an oyster shucking house. He also began acquiring leases for oyster beds. He made deals with a network of about 40 captains who sold him their oysters, which he'd then sell to wholesalers.

"I knew nothing about the business, but I knew how to use a pencil," Kurtich said of when he started. "I just thought, 'I'll learn from there.' "

But the oil spill has essentially stopped his business. Kurtich's sales hit $11 million last year, one of his best years ever. But he's worried that the second half of this year -- one that was forecast to have a particularly bountiful crop -- could bring him half that. He went from buying and hauling about 40,000 sacks of oysters last June to 711 sacks last week. This week, he expects it to be zero.

"That's just enough to make everybody mad at me," he said.

'Only getting worse'

The office phone rang. His daughter transferred the call from one of their buyers in Elizabeth City, Va.

"Are things getting better?" Kurtich said, repeating the buyer's daily question. "No. How can things be getting better? Things are only getting worse."

He had a tractor-trailer that was ready to be loaded and sent to Melbourne, Fla., but there hadn't been enough oysters in the past few days to fill it. He later sent it three-quarters full.

His wife, Joyce, whose grandfather came from Croatia and started in the seafood business in southern Louisiana, sighed as she flipped through paperwork.

"Usually our phones are ringing off the hook," she said. "Now they're dead. Our customers aren't calling because they know we're shut down."

Another call came in and his daughter yelled.

"You want to talk to Rufus Jr.?" she asked.

From his desk, Kurtich shouted back, "No. Tell him oysters are running out."

Unlike shrimpers and crabbers who can move to other areas, oystermen are locked in where they lease oyster beds. Some are worried that to show loss of livelihood, they'll have to hire divers and biologists to prove damage to their oyster crop or get involved with lawyers who will take a portion of any settlement.

An avid Saints football fan, Kurtich has deeper pockets than most in the business and has been a go-to man for loans to other oystermen.

He can't put aside his skepticism when he hears about the BP funds, which the company and the administration say could be far more.

"Who's going to get it?" he asked. "Is it going to be given out in a fair way or not? It sounds good, but you don't know."

"In Valdez, it took years to solve," he said, referring to the drawn-out litigious process that followed the Exxon Valdez disaster.

"People died before they were even getting 5 or 10 percent of what they lost."

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