As the black tide of BP crude oil moves toward the Florida Panhandle, thousands of fishermen are trying to salvage a way of life. BP's lifeline: Vessels of Opportunity, a program designed to hire the fallow charter and commercial fishing boats to clean up the very mess that has caused untold numbers to lose their livelihood. But a Daily Beast investigation reveals that this much-touted program is far more effective as a PR stunt than a financial savior. Specifically, a large number of the 1,900 contracts BP has issued across the Gulf have gone to the owners of pleasure boats: doctors, lawyers, and the like, who use their vessels for Saturday fishing trips or family outings, rather than the decimated commercial fishermen.
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"We have these weekend warriors taking away jobs from those who fish for a living," says Biloxi boat captain Tom Becker, an officer of the National Association of the Charterboat Operators, who estimates that as much as 90 percent of the BP contracts in his Mississippi harbor had gone to pleasure boats. "Every day I see the boat trailers fill the parking lot as the pleasure boats get their assignments for day while the commercial fleet sits idle. This is like stealing. These jokers are taking money away from those who are trying to feed their families."
• John Kao: Wanted—A National Disaster SWAT Team As I sit among one of the largest charter boat fleets on the Gulf Coast, in Destin, Florida, Scott Robson, president of the Destin Charter Boat Association, echoes the same message. "Vessels of Opportunity is a fiasco," he says. "We have nearly 100 charter boats in Destin, only 13 boats are on contract. The rest are pleasure boats—people being paid for their boats who don't make their livings on the water."
• Nicole LaPorte: Obama’s Gulf Fashion Faux Pas In Panama City, Florida, the reports were similar, though Bob Zales, president of the Panama City Boatmen's Association, couldn't come up with an estimate. ("I can tell this," he says. "We have had two meetings on [BP's program] in Panama City and about 450 people attended each meeting—there aren't 450 commercial fishing and charter boats in our county.")
Real money is at stake: Vessels of Opportunity pays the boat captains $1,200 to $3,000 per day depending on the size of the vessel—their deckhands are paid $200 each per day while they are under contract.
"We've got guys trying to make payments on their boats, tackle, and dock spaces who could use the $2,000 a day BP is paying," says Robson. "Instead, it's going to these private boats."
So what's going on? BP spokesman Graham MacEwen acknowledges the complaints, and says that changes have been made to the program to favor fishermen over weekend warriors.
But my sources say their interactions with BP haven't been so amicable. "When I tried to point this out at the meetings, BP shut me up," says Zales. "In my mind, one pleasure boat is too many."
"We've suggested an easy fix to this problem," adds Becker. "There are several federal and state databases available that identify who the licenses commercial fishing and charter boats are."
In Pensacola, emotions are running high as bank accounts are drained. One wife of a charter boat captain, with two boats carrying a mortgage of $500,000, describes how BP hired a boat owned by a chiropractor, with purple and yellow flames on its hull. "They have activated freaking ski boats," she cries, "while my husband, who has been in the charter business for two decades, sits idle."
What makes matters worse is the randomness: There is no established protocol for who is under contract or how long they stay under contract. Some boats have been approved by BP weeks ago, but have yet to be called into duty, which may involve transporting supplies, assisting wildlife rescue, or deploying containment and sorbent booms. Others are approved and immediately put on contract—Robson said three sailboats somehow got approved by BP, though they were eventually dropped when the errors were discovered. The consensus among the captains isn't that BP has pursued favoritism or insider deals, but rather acted incompetently.
"We've had three different BP reps in our area since this all started," says Robson. "Each says they're going to talk their bosses about it, but nothing happens. We get no answers, nobody is in charge."
Robson and his association has proposed that BP give every vessel a number and rotate the charter boats through the Vessels for Opportunity program, which would give every boat a chance to make a little money to supplement the loss of charter income.
"People would know where they are on the list and could arrange their charter bookings accordingly," says Robson. "Right now you're only given 24 hours when they call you."
Meanwhile, those who have gotten the contracts gripe that BP has been slow in paying. One captain, Steve Vrondran, who owns two charter boats in Gulf Shores, Alabama, says he's been activated for a month in the Vessels program, and has yet to be paid. "We were told to submit our first invoice after the first week and then every two weeks after that," says Vrondran. "Payments were to be made within two weeks. I've been calling every day for the past two weeks. I was first told I had to resubmit my invoices. Now I can't get anyone to return my freaking phone call." Vrondran says that the holdup apparently surrounds BP's approval of the $200 per day pay for the deckhands.
"Don't tell us you're paying the captain and crew, if you don't mean it," says Vrondran. "My employees expect to be paid. And I don't really have the money to do it."
Rick Outzen is publisher and editor of Independent News, the alternative newsweekly for Northwest Florida.