Posted: 03 Oct 2010 04:00 PM PDT
By Veronica Del Bianco
In drastic contrast to the tragic oil rig explosion in the Gulf, the eventual capping of the BP well in September was quiet and unceremonious because it meant little in the way of recovery for many along coastal Louisiana. The oil may have stopped gushing into the Gulf, but it's economic impacts continue to spread.
"I really thought there would be this flood of fishermen back to the water but it's been very slow," says Gary Bauer, owner of the dock and processing plant Pontchartrain Blue Crab, Inc. at Slidell, La. "They are hesitant. They are waiting to see what happens."
Bauer is a big man whose voice becomes quiet when talking about the future of his business and his community.
"I got a wife and kids," he says, his voice beginning to waiver. "It's the way I support my family. If the business collapses – I have right at about 100 employees right now – what happens to them? I buy from over 150 fishermen directly. I'm not going to make or break Louisiana seafood but if I fail … what does that say?"
Bauer has run the numbers. Between April 20 and August 31 in 2008 and 2009, he purchased 1.8 million and 1.84 million pounds of seafood, respectively. This year, he has only purchased 800,000 pounds during the same period of time.
"We're off a million pounds of seafood for the time since the spill," he sys. "That's how much of a drop we have taken."
Since the oil spill, Bauer has lost two major accounts – one because of a shortage of supply, and the second because of the negative brand perception of Gulf seafood.
For more than ten months, Bauer had worked on a deal worth $750,000 a year with a restaurant chain throughout the southeast to provide them with cooked crabs. But after the rig exploded and oil closed a majority of the fishing grounds, he couldn't get enough crabs, and the restauranteur pulled the plug on the project.
"That would have been a substantial repeating business year after year," says Bauer. "That was probably the most disappointing and devastating effect of the spill. If I had to pinpoint any one thing, that would have been tremendous."
The second account he lost not because he couldn't supply the machine picked crab meat promised, but because the buyer, who processes crab cakes, no longer wanted to purchase it.
"I lost one customer up north in Baltimore," reports Bauer. "He said 'you can't get another cup? My customer will take your meat in any cup that doesn't say product of Louisiana.'"
Bauer does not understand how BP and Feinberg can continue to say there is no problem with the perception of Gulf seafood.
"I am Pontchartrain Blues," says Bauer, "and, Lake Pontchartrain was shut down to commercial fishermen for quite some time. That makes the news. And now my name is associated with the spill. It took me ten years to build that name brand. It took 160 days for them to destroy that image."
Since April 20th, Bauer has gotten two compensation checks from BP but nothing since Feinberg took over.
"There are businesses similar to mine that closed, and because they closed it's easy to prove their loses," says Bauer. "It's cut and dry and they'll be paid. But because I made the decision to stay in business, it's going to be quite a job to prove my loses to BP and Mr. Feinberg."
Bauer worries that he will be penalized for staying open and trying to maintain his production, labor force and customer base.
"I give myself – the business – maybe a 50/50 chance of being in business six months from now," sighs Bauer, "and less than that if some kind of financial assistance doesn't come through – soon."
For Gary Bauer, his business Pontchartrain Blue Crabs, Inc. and the fishermen who sell their catch to him, the caping of the BP well was not the end of the disaster, only the end of the beginning. Now they find themselves in the middle of a bigger mess – red tape.
Photos by Peter Forest.