George Barisich, 54, has been fishing the Gulf Coast his entire life. First, as a kid, for fun, and eventually, for his livelihood, after taking over his father's fishing, crabbing, and shrimping business, which was founded in 1966.
A few months ago, business was looking pretty good. This past winter was particularly cold, which would make the spring good for shrimping. He invested more than $30,000 in a new shrimping boat, to prepare for the haul.
All that changed on April 20, after an explosion on a BP oil rig killed 11 workers and triggered the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Tens of millions of gallons of crude oil have poured into the Gulf of Mexico since then -- and the oil keeps flowing.
While the images of oil-soaked animals have been heartbreaking, and Gulf Coast states are working feverishly to protect their coastlines and beaches, the spill has also wreaked economic havoc on local business owners like Barisich -- who says he loses up to $5,000 for every day and a half he cannot fish and expects to lose a minimum of $150,000 because of the spill.
As president of the United Commercial Fisherman's Association, representing hundreds of commercial fishermen in Louisiana, Barisich says he is fed up with BP, describing the spill as the worst-case scenario for his industry. Barisich's organization and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network have slapped BP with a lawsuit -- over removal costs, property damage, and loss of wages. "Either they're gonna start doing something or we're going to make them do something," he says.
What was your reaction when you heard about the spill?
Well, initially it was, you know, "Just another one." We didn't know any details about it. But three days later, we were interviewed for a little news story and said, "This isn't a little one. This is a big one! Let's get ready. Let's corral this stuff up before it gets much further 'cause the wind's getting ready to turn up the northwest and to come out the southeast and we're gonna be buried." And did anybody listen? When [BP] grabbed the boom material, the wind was already over 40 miles per hour. It was the biggest joke you ever seen in your life because the material only works in certain conditions. Y'all don't hear all that. The continuance plan was -- ugh, I don't know -- nonexistent from what I see.
And what's your reaction now?
I'm getting as sick as I thought I would get when I told them it may happen. 'Cause we always gotta look at the worst possible scenario and prepare for it, and then pray and hope for the best. But now you're looking at the worst possible scenario coming down our back. Hey, this is here. It's on your ass and there's nothing you can do to stop it. And then the second worst fear is the pressure. We don't need a storm, we just get a depression and that stuff is gonna be everywhere. The boom material is gonna be everywhere. On my boat, in my nets. It's gonna be Nightmare on Elm Street. I don't see a decent outcome coming out of this unless God sends us a crazy fish that eats it up. And then for the government helping us? I want you to look back at history -- how many times they have promised to help the commercial fishermen and how many times they actually did. It's pitiful. So if I'm a little skeptical of the government helping us, it's understandably so.
How have you been handling damage control?
Well, up until two or three days ago, when the season opened, all I was doing was stuff like being interviewed, going on TV, going to meetings, going to other meetings, trying to educate everybody on what's going to happen to our industry and trying to get some governmental help. Trying to get BP to step up. Right now, I feel my place as the leader of the association is to be at every meeting I can be, to make people step up. But that's all I've been doing. There are a lot of other fisherman -- they decided to go ahead and work for BP. You know, clean-up programs. That's not for me.
What is your Plan B, in case you can't fish for the rest of the season?
I do have several options. I had purchased a couple of properties -- oh, 20 properties -- real cheap after Hurricane Katrina. I guess I'll try and make a loan and fix them. I really don't want to go to work for anybody. My wife asked me to do that after Katrina. She said, "Why don't you just give up all the boats and everything? We're gonna be screwed. Just go get a job." And I told my wife, "I am 51 years old. You think I could go take orders right now?" If we luck out and get a couple of grants with the association, [I would] work with the association to help find other people jobs. We're hoping to get a few grants out of this. We've been fighting this fight for over 17 years, so we have a good reputation for standing up for the fishermen. I can't retire. I can't just sit around and do nothing.
What's the worst effect of the spill you've seen?
Part of this is the trickle-down effect. There's a net maker, the guy who makes and repairs the nets. He went to go work for BP and then someone went and squealed on him and said, "He's not a shrimper, he's not a fisherman," which technically he's not. But if he's not screwed just as badly, then who is? 'Cause he makes our net. And that's what's happening. We have friends fighting each other, 'cause you're working and I'm not. [BP] also has a bunch of part-timers who do fish, but they have a real job. So the way we look at it, they shouldn't be able to participate unless [BP] exhausts the real commercial fishermen in the area.
Name: George Barisich
Company: Barisich Inc.
Location: St. Bernard Parish, La.
Employees: 2-6 (seasonal)
2009 Revenue: $149,000
The original version of this article appeared on AOL Small Business on 6/8/10.