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.
Shrimpers Join 'Vessels of Opportunity'
"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.
Shrimpers and Oilmen Working Together
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 Chance to Work In Tough Times
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.
"When they go out shrimping, shrimpers don't know how much they're going to make although there's the potential to make a lot," says Deborah Long, a spokeswoman for the Shrimp Alliance. "When they're working for BP, they know how much they're going to make."
Yet not everyone has benefited from BP's outreach to boat owners.
David Luke, owner of St. Michael's Fuel & Ice in Biloxi, Mississippi, says most of the boats in his dock have been contracted to work with BP, but none have been scheduled for assignments yet, and none have been reimbursed for filling up their tanks. Luke estimates that he has extended about $50,000 in credit for fuelling so far.
"I can't keep putting out fuel like that, not knowing if I'm going to get paid," says Luke.
Some Shrimpers Complain About Disorganization
One shrimper on Luke's dock, who did not want to be named, says he has been paying his crew of six a daily rate to remain on standby as he waits for orders from the oil giant. The shrimper says he usually catches $2,500 worth of shrimp on a good day, before expenses.
"It's a total mess," he says, complaining about BP's handling of the Vessels of Opportunity program. "It seems they're expecting us to finance this operation for them and then wait a month or two before we get paid. We're not those kind of businessmen. We sell our shrimp and get our money right then."
Shrimpers and dock owners along the Gulf Coast tell ABC News that BP has promised to pay anywhere from $700 to $3,000 per day to qualified boat owners, depending on the size of their vessels. Some trawlers have begun to assist with actual cleanups, by dropping booms into the water and dragging them slowly along to corral oil in thick layers.
Oil Cleanup No Substitute for Trawling
Despite these financial gains, people around the Gulf say the cleanup work is no substitute for shrimping, even though it has attracted the interest of many shrimpers.
"They see easy money but they really don't want to do that. They want to trawl for a living," says Allen Estay, owner of Blue Water Shrimp Company in Dulac, Louisiana, which buys fresh shrimp and freezes it for resale. "For some people it's bred into them. It's what they've done all their life."
Estay estimates that he has lost more than half of his business this year, because he has only been able to buy about 500,000 pounds of shrimp so far, when he should really have already bought 1.5 million. He adds that he has already met with a BP representative who promised monetary compensation if Estay can provide the necessary paperwork.
For Estay and others, however, it's not this year's financial survival they are worried about. It's what happens after BP's Vessels of Opportunities program ends.
"Our concern is what our future holds," says Rodriguez, owner of the Lady Joanna. "I'll survive, I have deep pockets," he says, adding that his family also owns other businesses, including a boat building company and a marina. "Not everyone is in the same situation."