NEW ORLEANS – Even when the oily sheen starts fading from the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, it manages to become bad news for fishermen.
Many of those whose fisheries were shut down by the oil spill have found work skimming oil, putting out boom or ferrying cleanup supplies through BP's Vessels of Opportunity program. But as the crude sinks, evaporates or breaks down, they may be left with nothing to do but wait for their claim checks to arrive and for their fishing grounds to reopen.
No one knows how much longer BP plans to keep them working, and some fishermen, like Freddy Creppel, have been waiting for weeks to get a call.
"It was good work. I was making something," said the Buras shrimper and fisherman, who joined the program and got 17 days of work using his boat to help guide workers to oiled birds stuck in the slick.
"I'm hurting pretty bad. I'm struggling," the 37-year-old said. "Guess they'll tell us sometime."
Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser said it's clear the cleanup effort is being scaled back even though oil is still showing up on the coast.
He said his biggest fear is that BP and the federal government "are going to start pulling back. They say they are not but already they have canceled catering contracts, they've stopped production of boom at factories."
The gusher set off by an April 20 oil-rig explosion spewed between 94 million gallons and 184 million gallons into the Gulf before a temporary cap stopped the flow July 15. A permanent fix is expected to be weeks away.
Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the government's oil-spill response chief, said that once the oil is stopped for good, the cleanup effort may start ratcheting down. The work has involved 11 million feet of boom, 811 oil skimmers and 40,000 people.
There were 1,584 Vessels of Opportunity in use as of Thursday, according to the Deepwater Horizon Unified Incident Command Web site. Thousands more vessels than that are under contract with the program, nearly 3,500 in Louisiana alone.
BP said in a news release Thursday that it has stopped accepting new vessels in the program but will continue to use vessels now in the program. Allen told reporters authorities are looking at using some of the vessels to put out sensors to monitor oil as boom and response equipment is removed. He said they are trying to figure out the size of the force they need long-term.
The vast majority of fishing grounds in the northern Gulf are closed because of the spill, though some in state waters have been reopened to recreational fishermen. Federal regulators have not said when fishing may open in federal waters, which span areas a few miles offshore.
Rusty Gaude, a fishery agent with the Louisiana Sea Grant, an extension of the Louisiana State University, said it is likely commercial fishing in federal and state waters will reopen soon. He added that no oil contamination has been found in state and federal seafood samples.
Allen had what he called a frank and open discussion with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and coastal parish officials concerned that the Coast Guard and BP PLC will pull back from the spill response once the oil is stopped permanently.
"One of the things we absolutely wanted to get today was their commitment that they're in it for the long-term," added Gov. Jindal. "Look, all those (federal) people in the room, with no disrespect ... they're going to be rotated out to different jobs. Everybody here is still going to be here dealing with this oil whether it's a year from now or years from now."
Nungesser said reports that oil has been disappearing from the surface have been exaggerated.
"Yesterday there was a flight where no oil was seen. I don't know how they took that flight, but they must have bobbed and weaved around the oil because in Plaquemines Parish there is oil all over," he said.
Allen said federal, state and local officials will come up with a plan by next week for how to clean up any oil that might continue washing up on beaches and in wetlands.
BP said incoming CEO Bob Dudley will be in Biloxi, Miss., on Friday morning to outline the company's long-term plans and announce that it will be getting help from James Lee Witt, former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency during the Clinton administration.
Little of the oil remains on the water, but that doesn't mean it has all vanished. Scientists are worried that much of it has been trapped below the surface after more than 770,000 gallons of chemical dispersant were used to break up the oil a mile deep. They have found evidence of massive clouds of oil suspended in the water.
In Orange Beach, Ala., Jack Raborn said he didn't see any tar balls when he went to the shore Wednesday with friends and family. But when they entered the ocean, he said, the water was tainted.
"It feels like you've got diesel fuel on you. It's sticky," said Raborn, 49. "I was optimistic before today. I'm really disturbed by what I found once we got in the water."
A report by the National Resources Defense Council found oil still fouling beaches even after the gusher was capped July 15. Since the spill started, beaches from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle have been closed or slapped with health warnings more than 2,200 times, the council found.
Though the oil upended fishermen's livelihoods, they found a lucrative substitute in Vessels of Opportunity. Oysterman Ronnie Kennair and his brother got $2,000 for each of the roughly 30 days they used their boat to help in the cleanup.
Kennair, of Empire, La., is hoping for more work, especially given the prospects for his normal job.
"I went and checked my oysters, actually, yesterday, and they're 100 percent dead," he said.
Even idled fishermen are getting checks from BP to compensate for work lost due to the spill, but that money has been slower to arrive than what they get for cleanup work.
Fourth-generation shrimper David Chauvin oversees his own three boats plus 22 others involved in Vessels of Opportunity. He said Thursday that he's happy with the cleanup payments — they come every two weeks — but he's still waiting for a check from BP compensating him for losses to his shut-down shrimp business.
Tony Jennings, harbormaster of Delta Marina in Empire, said that right now the oil cleanup industry is the only business he's got.
"If they decide to shut that down, we would have to close the marina," he said. "The economy hasn't recovered enough to sustain us. Recreational fishers aren't back either. It would be devastating."
Barring a calamity, the oil won't start flowing again before BP PLC can permanently kill the well.
A procedure intended to ease the job of plugging the blown-out well for good could start as early as the weekend, Allen said. The so-called static kill can begin when crews finish work drilling the relief well 50 miles offshore that is needed for a permanent fix.
Allen said crews would drop in casing for the relief well later Thursday, and that could speed up work on the static kill, though he did not say by how much. He previously said it would begin late Sunday or early Monday.
The static kill, which involves pumping heavy mud into the busted well from the top, is on track for completion some time next week. Then comes the bottom kill, where the relief well will be used to pump in mud and cement from the bottom; that process will take days or weeks, depending on the effectiveness of the static kill.
Allen also said there is now little chance that any of the spilled oil will reach the East Coast, and the odds will go to zero as the well is killed. The Coast Guard expects oil to keep showing up on Gulf Coast beaches four to six weeks after the well is killed.
Greg Bluestein reported from Empire, La. Associated Press Writers Harry R. Weber, Brian Skoloff and Cain Burdeau contributed to this report.