FISHERIES

Ala. town's seafood companies scramble to stay afloat

BON SECOUR, Ala. -- John Andrew Nelson pushes back his chair and walks over to maps on his office wall that chart waters where boats providing seafood for his fourth-generation company can no longer work.

Then he walks to another map and points to where the 80-foot steel shrimp trawlers owned and operated by his company will have to head, much farther away off Texas.

"It's a long way from home, but we're going to have to go," he said. "We'll be depending heavily on that this year."

Bon Secour Fisheries Inc., a seafood processor and wholesale distributor, also is getting about 30 percent of the fresh oysters it needs, Nelson said. So far he has managed to avoid laying off any of his 130 employees, but he has had to cut back hours for oyster shuckers.

Businesses across this town of several hundred people are suffering from the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Other seafood companies, restaurants and those who depend on tourism also are hurting.

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Just down the road, the Tin Top Restaurant and Oyster Bar has announced that because of the oil spill, it will stop serving lunch on weekdays toward the end of this month and only open for dinner.

The owners had planned to make the change after Labor Day but had to move up the date because of lost business, assistant manager Jason Kryder said.

A couple of Tin Top employees have filed claims with the company responsible for the spill, BP PLC, for loss of income, and one has already received a check, he said. The owners are considering filing a claim too, he said.

While the restaurant has had little trouble buying seafood so far, getting oysters is likely to become a problem, Kryder predicted.

Kryder estimates that at least three-quarters of the town is affected economically by the spill, whether they depend on tourism, seafood or even real estate, since no one wants to buy property here now.

"It's a trickle-down effect," he said.

He also worries about the spill's long-term effect on his town. "Nothing will be the same as when I grew up as a kid," he said. "If I ever have kids it won't be right for them."

But he does not watch media coverage of the spill.

"I choose not to look at it," he said. "It's not a denial thing, it's just there's nothing you can do about it. Helpless and distraught is how I feel about it. At the same time you have to go ahead, you can't go back."

Over at Aquila Seafood Inc., Alfred Sherman is busy unloading seafood from a truck and moving it into cold storage. But the 53-year-old said this is the first day in a week they have worked unloading boats, compared to the normal five or six times a day.

Sherman has still come to work even when there is no seafood being delivered, instead mowing the lawn or finding other jobs to do. But if BP does not get the oil leak stopped soon, "we're going to shut down pretty quick," he said. People are scared to buy shrimp and fish, fearing it might be contaminated, he said.

Though he has worked at Aquila for 19 years, Sherman said he is prepared to find other employment and may fall back on his training as a carpenter.

"We'll just find something else to do," he said.

Hiring law firms

Aquila does not have any crabs now, since the man who caught them quit a month ago to work as a contractor for BP. But locals are angry that BP for the most part has hired contractors from northern Alabama and elsewhere instead of hiring local boats, Sherman said.

A person who answered the telephone yesterday at nearby Safe Harbour Seafood Inc., said the company might only be open one more week and have to close down because of the crisis.

Back at Bon Secour Fisheries, Nelson said the spill's most immediate effect on his company is loss of oyster production out of Louisiana. His oyster shuckers are "not getting as much work as they would like, but they're getting by."

And while the company has plenty of shrimp in cold storage for now, the season is just beginning, and its boats have had to go to Florida.

"We haven't been able to catch shrimp where we want," he said. The Texas commercial shrimp season opens next month.

He blames the government for failing to respond better. "I'd like to see them plug the hole with bureaucrats," he said of the leak.

Nelson's company has hired a law firm in Montgomery, Ala., to help his workers file claims with BP and join potential lawsuits. "If you get to where you can't make groceries, for an employee, you can get some money ahead of time," he said.

The company also is interested in potential class-action lawsuits. "It'll probably all wind up in court," Nelson said.

At 55, John Andrew Nelson serves as president of the company founded in 1896; his father John Ray Nelson at 84 remains CEO, and his two brothers serve as vice presidents.

Although the business has weathered "some pretty bad hurricanes," he said, the spill may be the worst disaster it faces. But, he added, that will only become clear with time.

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