A photo caption said that Louisiana fisherman Acy Cooper Jr. was making a "rare" shrimping trip and that he "isn't on the water much anymore." Cooper was making about three shrimping trips a week in September and October, according to records of the trips that he provided.
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Six months after the spill, BP's money is changing the gulf as much as its oil
On land, though, BP's payments have been, in their own way, as historic as the spill. In the past, Americans who lost lives or money to man-made disasters were often left to sue. But this time, the federal government directed BP to take action: replace an entire region's economic losses, almost in real time.
"We're just making it up as we're going," said David A. Logan, the dean of Roger Williams University School of Law in Bristol, R.I. He sees the work as, in some aspects, more complex than compensating families for deaths on Sept. 11, 2001. "How do you measure a disaster for someone's life's work? We have much more experience, it turns out, evaluating broken arms and dead bodies than we do shrimpers' take."
So far, BP has paid $569 million to locals who participated in the Vessels of Opportunity program, helping to spot, sop up and burn the oil.
It also gave out about $396 million to compensate fishermen, hotel owners and others who lost money during the spill, before handing the process over to Feinberg in August.
For those who played their cards right, BP's money brought a summer of quiet windfall. Ted Melancon, a shrimper from Cut Off, La., worked for BP for 130 days.
"They sure helped us out, you know, they stepped up to the plate and helped us out. . . . It would have been a bad year," said Melancon (pronounced "meh-lan-sahn"). He said he hasn't counted his full take, but he made enough to buy new nets and new cable for his shrimp boat, as well as a new Ford F-150 pickup.
"Which I didn't really need, but I had to buy. Because, you know, tax write-offs," he said, meaning that the truck and other items could be written off as business expenses. On top of that, he's expecting to get another BP payout, compensation for the shrimping he couldn't do this summer while large areas of the gulf were closed.
"I'm done for the season," Melancon said. "It don't pay to go back to work."
'Life is scrambled'
But simply paying shrimpers doesn't re-create the economy that was built around them. The new money, like a swollen river, is carving new channels and leaving old ones dry.
"They're not coming back," said J.P. "Skipper" Taylor, a seafood dealer who usually buys shrimp from Melancon and others. He used to unload 100 boats a week; now it's three to five.
With his income cut, "I'm waiting for my BP check," Taylor said, sitting on a dock alongside Bayou Carlin, wearing a golden shrimp pendant around his neck. The industry as a whole is worried: The fear is that restaurants are replacing the missing gulf shrimp with imports from Asia. So, when shrimpers such as Melancon return next year with fixed-up boats and new trucks, they may find that prices and demand are low.
Others have been left out of BP's largesse. In Plaquemines Parish, La., sheriff's deputies have been called to bars to respond to shoving matches, sparked because one man came out ahead this summer and the other didn't.