BP oil spill creates low-stress jobs, but some fishermen face emotional crisis

With concern over seafood quality growing as a result of gulf contamination, fish buyers must carefully choose their stock and consider foreign options while trying to work with domestic fishermen.
By Ylan Q. Mui, David A. Fahrenthold and Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 13, 2010

ON BAYOU DUFRENE, LA. -- Aaron Cortez's job is as small as the gulf oil spill is huge: His crew is supposed to track down pieces of oil-absorbing boom that have drifted away, and pull them back into position with metal hooks.

It's work. But for someone who enjoyed the self-reliance and independence of his old job catching bayou crabs, it's nothing more than that.

"Now you're gonna see how boring our job is," Cortez, 21, said one Saturday afternoon. Ahead in the sweltering marsh, an errant piece of boom bobbed like a lost swimming-pool noodle.

Cortez, who works for a contractor hired by BP, is part of a historic shift in employment that has altered the rhythms of daily life around the Gulf of Mexico. As the crews of local boats have been hired to help with the cleanup, thousands of men and women used to solitary, autonomous days on the water have become, in effect, low-level employees of an oil company.

For these crews -- usually seen only in long-range TV shots, faceless participants in the gulf's drama -- working for BP can bring good pay and the pride of fighting the spill hand-to-hand.

But for some it comes at a psychological cost: They have given up control of their lives in exchange for hot days, bewildering bureaucracy and a nagging sense that the oil is still winning. The toll for a few individuals has been extreme, as illustrated last month, when a charter-boat captain working for BP committed suicide in Alabama.

"We're dealing with people who are very resilient and used to being in charge of their own destiny. When that's taken away, it creates an emotional and psychological crisis," said Anthony Speier, deputy assistant secretary of Louisiana's Office of Mental Health.

In the days after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig sank April 22, BP began hiring private boats to lay out containment boom, spot globs of oil on the surface and test for oil below the water. Its best-known program, called "Vessels of Opportunity," has now hired more than 3,200 boats, paying $1,200 to $3,000 per day.

In some places, the program has been welcomed as an economic lifeline. In Pass Christian, Miss., the mayor said so many local fishing boats have enrolled that "it looks like the Spanish armada when they're coming in in the evening."

"The unknown of where you were going to get your next paycheck from, all of that was taken away when BP employed us," said William Scarborough, 40, who owns five of the boats that sail out of Pass Christian harbor.

He said many of his crew members have been dragging oil-absorbing boom underwater to check for pockets of oil, a task that is much less back-straining than their usual work catching, hauling and sorting oysters. "It's as close to a stress-free work environment that I could have ever have hoped for," Scarborough said. "I mean, my guys, they show up to work with bells on every morning."

But for crews based in other spots around the gulf, working for BP can mean long hours, confusing orders and an unsettling up-close view of the spill in their fishing grounds.

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