The Suffering of the Gulf Shrimpers: One Man's BP Oil Spill Story

Gulf Shrimper John Christmas: A BP Oil Spill Story
Gulf Shrimper John Christmas: A BP Oil Spill Story

Shrimper John T. Christmas probably would have had a good year were it not for the BP oil spill. Now, the 60-year-old from Tarpon Springs, Fla., and thousands like him who have made their living on the Gulf of Mexico, are wondering if they will have any future at all in the wake of the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

"I am sitting up there scratching my head wondering what to do," says Christmas (pictured), who learned the shrimping trade from his father. Now he's happy that his daughter did not follow in his footsteps. "Thank God I got her through college before all of this came down. ... I have dealt with natural disasters. It's the long-term effect [of the oil spill] that I am grumbling about."

Like many shrimpers, Christmas was already struggling before the deadly April 20 explosion that sank the Deepwater Horizon rig and left the hole in BP's (BP) well head that has been spewing crude into the Gulf. In recent years, low-priced foreign imports have decimated the shrimp industry in the U.S., leaving it with about 10% of the market. Fewer young people are getting in the industry, which mostly consists of family businesses, because the prospects are so bleak. The numbers of licensed shrimpers are plunging. Indeed, many shrimpers were just getting back on their feet financially from Hurricane Katrina when the BP oil spill struck.

"This year looked as though it was going to be better," says Deborah Long, a spokeswoman for the Southern Shrimp Alliance. The timing of the Deepwater Horizon disaster could not have been worse, she says.

Shrimp Prices Are Up, But Buyers Are Wary

Further complicating matters are lingering fears about contaminated seafood reaching the market, though that hasn't happened so far, and odds are slim that it ever will, according to Sal Versaggi, president of Tampa, Fla.-based Versaggi Shrimp Co., which owns six shrimp boats.

"This stuff is being monitored very closely," he says in an interview.

Christmas is lucky he can still shrimp, though business is down and he's no longer able to make money renting out freezer space to other fisherman. Prices for large Gulf shrimp have gone up 30% to 40% since the spill. Many restaurants, however, are switching to alternative sources, hoping to appease customers worried about the effects of the Gulf disaster of the food chain. Imports have not grabbed additional market share since the spill because there is a worldwide shortage of shrimp, according to John Sackton of Some restaurants may switch back once the spill is contained, he says.

"The Gulf shrimp market is going to come back," he says, adding that seafood sales have rebounded from similar scares in the past, such as when hypodermic needles were found on New Jersey beaches during the 1990s.

Options Are Limited for Shrimpers

But many shrimpers may not be able to wait for the laws of supply and demand to work themselves out. Christmas says his options are limited. "I ain't never did nothing else. Until this point, the business has been very good to me. I couldn't even read when I got out of school. "

Christmas is literate now, but many of his fellow shrimpers are not, he says, particularly the Cajuns in Louisiana, where he has traveled to shrimp for years. "Them people need to be taken care of first," he says. "They think heaven is in them swamps. Majority of them can't write their name."

Keeping a positive outlook is hard. BP has assumed responsibility for the Gulf cleanup, and has pledged to make whole those people who have lost money because of the disaster. But Christmas says that he is not sure if he is going to seek compensation from the oil company.

He says he has seen people file fraudulent claims from BP and others turn to drugs and alcohol because they have become despondent. When I interviewed him, Christmas saw a picture of BP's embattled CEO Tony Hayward on CNN and confessed, "I was about to kick out my big-screen TV."