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Distrust hampers BP effort to enlist fishermen in oil spill flight

The BP plan is to pay fishermen to deploy booms from their own boats. Fisherman want to help combat the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, but a liability form is causing widespread confusion.

By Bill SasserStaff writer / May 3, 2010

Louisiana fishermen Eric Melerine (l.) and Lance Melerine hang out after pulling some of their crab traps out of the water after government officials ruled that the catch was contaminated by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and could not be sold.



Venice, La.

A BP program aimed at employing fishermen to help the company protect coastline from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is being undermined by confusion and distrust.

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BP's Vessel of Opportunity program is promising to employ hundreds if not thousands of boatmen across the Gulf. The company will pay them to take out their own boats and deploy containment booms along the coast, provided they complete a five hour safety and hazardous materials handling course first.

But a liability waiver issued to boatmen Plaquemines Parish this weekend spread confusion, with many fishermen worried that signing the waiver would forfeit their rights to file a claim against BP for economic losses they’ve suffered from the spill, though BP has said that is not the case. Moreover, others said the oil company was offering too little pay for the work.

IN PICTURES: Louisiana oil spill

It is a glimpse at the difficulty of attempting to marshal resources along the Gulf coast to fight the spill – even among those who arguably stand to lose the most from the disaster.

The first mandatory five-hour class was held in Venice, La., on Friday afternoon. It has since been expanded to four other regional command centers in Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, according to a BP spokesperson. The program hired 50 boats in Plaquemines Sunday and began loading booms while waiting for high winds to clear, said spokesperson Ayana McIntosh-Lee.

The liability form

But rough weather was only one obstacle hampering the first weekend of the effort. Already worried about losing their livelihoods after Louisiana state officials closed all fishing east of the Mississippi River Friday, many fishermen were loath to sign any document that could potentially limit their ability to recoup losses from BP in the future.

“There was some enthusiasm for this at first, but not anymore,” says Paul Barrios of Plaquemines, who owns five boats serving as tenders for the oil industry. “A lot of it had to do with signing that piece of paper.”

Mr. Barrios, who attended a public meeting last Friday held by the parish government and BP preceding the first training class, said a number of fishermen he knows completed the training and are waiting to be called for work.