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Gulf Coast Fishermen Join The Ranks Of The Unemployed

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On Tuesday morning, Gulf Coast fisherman and charter boat captain Scott Leger hung a "Vessel for Hire" sign on his friend's aluminum catamaran and drove it down to Venice, Louisiana, in hopes of finding work. He says he and his fishermen friends have been out of work since the oil spill, and they hoped someone from BP might spot the empty boat and need the extra help.

"We're looking for anything right now," said Leger, who says the only calls he's been receiving lately have been from clients trying to cancel their fishing charters. "I'm not totally out of money, but it's not far off. I'm stacking up a bunch of debt right now trying to get my boat ready for a fishing season that might not even happen."

The recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, possibly the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, has delivered a huge blow to the seafood industry and those who depend on it for a living. Leger, 30, from Rayne, Louisiana, says he's been working as a charter boat captain for six years now, earning his living by taking groups of clients out fishing in the Gulf. Like many other fishermen, he currently has no second source of income or a back-up plan.

"I've got a wife and little boy. I'm worried. Everybody is," Leger told HuffPost in a phone interview. "They've closed off more than half the waters we fish already, and I think the oil is gonna kill the rest of the fish. It's gonna start with all the little fish that hang out near the surface, the bait, and then it's gonna be a trickle effect. Man, I hope that doesn't happen."

Ironically, Leger and a number of other fishermen and shrimpers along the Gulf coast are now depending on BP for contract work cleaning up the spill. But Rowdy Schouest, a shrimper out of Cypremort Point, Louisiana, says fishermen need to beware of the fine print on those contracts.

"BP, they hire your boat, pay you so much to help with oil cleanup, then when you collect that first check, you're gonna sign away all your rights to sue them," said Schouest. "[The fishermen] are hurtin' so bad for the money, but they're not realizing that little bit of money's gonna end, and then it's over with. They're gonna sign the paperwork even though they don't even know how to read it, then when they can't go fishing five or ten years from now, they're gonna realize, 'Whoa, we messed up.'"

As of Tuesday, more than 30 class-action suits had been filed against BP, Halliburton, Transocean, and others involved in the disaster set off by the April 5 oil rig explosion. According to Alabama Attorney General Troy King, BP has been circulating settlement agreements of up to $5000 as a preemptive measure.

"People need to proceed with caution and understand the ramifications before signing something like that," King told the Mobile Press-Register on Sunday night. "They should seek appropriate counsel to make sure their rights are protected."

A federal judge recently blocked BP from forcing volunteers to promise not to file legal claims against the oil company, according to the Courthouse News Service. BP did not return calls for comment.

Schouest says the financial damage that this oil spill will ultimately cause Gulf Coast fisherman far exceeds the amount BP is offering.

"It will have a long, long term effect on us. Any shrimper on the Gulf Coast from the tip of Florida to the Mexican border will be affected by this for the next few years," he said. "Even if a few shrimp survive this, you're gonna have 15,000 boats from five states going into one little area to catch them. There may be a big pile of food on the table, but if there are 20 people eating it, you barely get a taste. That's what's gonna happen with the shrimping business."

Schouest, who lives with his wife and six children out on the Louisiana coast, has been running shrimp boats since he was 12 years old, but he says he's one of the few lucky fishermen with an education and a number of other marketable skills to rely upon when the shrimping industry takes a hit.

"I taught myself mechanic work, welding, carpentry, you name it," he said. "If I get a book, I can read that book and learn how to do something. But 80 percent of the fisherman, if they went to high school, they went for one year. They're not stupid people, but they can't read, some of them can't even write, and nobody's looking out for their interests. When you see a man who can't provide for his family, it hurts."

The fishermen aren't counting on the government for help, either, Schouest said.

"I'm hoping they don't hand the money to the state of Louisiana, because I promise you the fishermen ain't gonna get it. By the time whoever manages the money finishes getting their money, the fishermen get about 2 percent of it. That's what happened after Katrina," he said, referring to the relief money FEMA handed over to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

Despite the huge hit the seafood industry has taken as a result of the oil spill, Schouest says a decision to stop Gulf Coast drilling would be even more detrimental to those who depend on it for a second income.

"We all rely on that oil revenue," he said. "When there's a bad season, we go work for the oil field. They were the only ones in this economy that were continuing to build. If it wouldn't have been for the oil field after Katrina, we wouldn't have had jobs through that rough winter. If you stop drilling, the oil spill wins."

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