Charles Rodriguez has been shrimping in the Gulf of Mexico, all the way from Texas to Florida, for twenty years. He had just finished fueling up his 90-foot trawler, Lady Joanna, for its first expedition of the spring season when the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded.
With 84 million gallons of crude oil estimated to be floating in the Gulf of Mexico, and most of America's offshore shrimping areas closed off by the government as a result, shrimping is now out of the question.
Instead, Rodriguez is putting the Lady Joanna to another use: helping BP clean up the oil spill.
"When the Deepwater Horizon accident happened, I said they're going to close the west side river, so let's try to get with BP," says Rodriguez, 51, who is based in Mobile, Alabama. In May, Rodriguez signed up for BP's "Vessels of Opportunity" program, which hires local boat owners to help with the cleanup.
Since then, Lady Joanna's captain and crew have taken her out to sea six times, where they survey the Gulf for oil pockets and damaged wildlife, and report their findings to BP.
The payoff is worthwhile. The British oil giant pays Rodriguez $3,000 a day for use of the trawler, $300 a day per crew hand, and also covers the cost of fuel. By comparison, Lady Joanna typically nets a daily catch worth $5,000-$6,000 during the top of the shrimping season, but Rodriguez ends up spending more than half of that on fuel, crew, maintenance and groceries.
"Three-thousand is good for us. We're real satisfied with that," he says.
It sounds surprising, but the livelihoods of shrimpers and oilmen have always been closely linked in the Gulf of Mexico. Both industries make their living off the sea, and both employ large numbers of workers in the area.
One of BP's first responses to the spill was to launch Vessels of Opportunity. More than 2,930 vessels have joined the program so far, and thousands of crew members have been trained in safety and boom towing, according to the Deepwater Horizon website. BP spokespeople did not respond to requests for more detail.
A service representative at the Vessels of Opportunity hotline tells ABC News that hundreds of interested boat owners call the line every day, some even dialing in from other parts of the country. He points out that BP only allows only local boat owners to participate, particularly those whose livelihood has been affected by the spill.
"We've had people call us from Michigan, saying can I come down and work," says the representative, who did not want to be named.
After a slow start, the Vessels of Opportunity program offers shrimpers a chance to work during tough economic times.
While shrimpers can catch up to $60,000 worth of shrimp on a good day, according to the Shrimp Alliance, the year's two seasons only last a total of nine months. The U.S. shrimp industry has also been hammered by competition from cheaper markets such as Thailand, China and Ecuador, which has dragged prices down and pushed many shrimpers to the edge of economic survival.
As a result, the average shrimper lost $10,000 in 2008, even though 257 million pounds of shrimp – valued at $441.8 million – were caught, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.