On May 4, while petroleum company BP and the Coast Guard were trying to stop the oil gushing from its Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico, charter Capt. Tom Becker, one of thousands of commercial watermen whose livelihoods are threatened by the spill, was waiting ... and waiting ... and waiting to see how this disaster would unfold.
Becker, of Biloxi, Miss., is captain of the 40-foot custom sportfisherman The Skipper. He hasn't seen a threat to his livelihood as potentially catastrophic as this one in his 25 years of fishing.
Fifteen days after an April 20 explosion killed 11 oil rig workers and ruptured the BP well, it still was spewing thousands of gallons of crude a day into the Gulf. At the time the slick was hovering 25 miles off the Chandeleur Islands in easternmost Louisiana. Becker worried as the toxic blanket spread east toward Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Panhandle. NOAA had closed all fishing off Louisiana east of the Mississippi River and in federal waters off Mississippi. Inshore fishing was still permitted.
Four days later - as of Saturday, May 8 - the oil had reached shore, tar balls were washing up on Dauphin Island at the mouth of Mobile Bay and helicopters were expected to drop sandbags in Louisiana to guard against the crude washing up on beaches. NOAA expanded the fishing ban May 7.
"The charter boat industry is not getting calls, or the calls we are getting are concerned about the possibility of canceling a trip," says Becker, who had just lost a two-day charter for a party of 10 - worth $9,600 to him. "That's a lot of money for hotels, a lot of money for me, and I'm not the only one." The charter captain also was worried the oil would devastate the fisheries upon which so many commercial fishermen and charter boat operators depend.
Speckled trout, Spanish mackerel, king mackerel and cobia all were spawning as the crude oozed. The slick could wipe out or severely deplete a year class, drive out breeding stock and kill shrimp, oysters and crabs, he says.
It could happen - or maybe not. The worst part is not knowing.
"I am very concerned," he says. "I'll be 69 in July. How many years can I sit around unemployed?"
Things were still uncertain May 4. For Becker, it was like sitting around waiting for a hurricane. "Only the oil is moving so much slower than a hurricane. We're waiting for the oil," he says. "If it comes here, we're in trouble."
So many others were waiting, too, along with Becker, as Florida Gov. Charlie Crist requested $50 million in federal funds, calling the incident "an environmental disaster of unprecedented proportions."
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