Louisiana oystermen worry that BP payout won't be enough

In Port Sulphur, La., a community of Croatian oystermen have made a living in the seafood business for generations. Now, they're worried about how they'll pass their occupation on in the wake of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
By Dana Hedgpeth
Sunday, June 20, 2010

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.

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