POINT A LA HACHE, La. (CN) - Fishermen gathered Wednesday to remember the 11 oil-rig workers who lost their lives in the Deepwater Horizon explosion, but much of the conversation on the anniversary of the disaster was about BP's alleged lawbreaking, its failure to pay claims, and the unfair and some say insulting treatment they've received from claims administration Kenneth Feinberg.
A recent study of 423 fishermen and -women in the area showed that 1 year after the oil spill, just 2 percent are in "sustainable fishing," while 79 percent are still waiting for claims payments from BP.
The fishermen urged this community, on the east bank of the Mississippi River, to sign a petition asking BP to set aside a separate fund to pay fishermen whose livelihoods were thrown into chaos by the oil spill.
The petition states: "BP continues to break the law and ignore its moral responsibility by refusing to promptly and fairly compensate communities victimized by this disaster of BP's own creation.
"BP delays paying legitimate 'interim' claims through BP's henchman [Kenneth] Feinberg, causing otherwise proud and hardworking people economic desperation and personal humiliation, and endangering our damaged Gulf Coast way of life.
"Rather than meet its moral and legal obligations, BP has used people's desperation to extract full and final releases of all rights in exchange for minimal compensation. These predatory practices must be stopped; help us stop them."
A Vietnamese fisherman from New Orleans East addressed the group through a translator.
"We fishermen have suffered a lot from the oil spill. We have been very stressed and that's what brings us here today," he said.
"We fishermen live very fair lives. We don't try to cheat anyone. But in the claims process, they try to take 60 percent of our income.
"BP is responsible for the oil spill, and they say to us that they will compensate us fairly, but at this point it hasn't been fair at all.
"We want BP to restore the environment to how it was so we can regain our way of life and our lifestyle."
Tracy Kuhn, director of Bayoukeeper, a wetlands advocacy group, rebuffed allegations that fishermen have made out like bandits through the claims process.
"BP is not doing what they are legally obligated to do to make us whole," Kuhn said.
"Instead, we have Feinberg talking about fraudulent claims."
Clint Guidry, president of the Louisiana Shrimpers Association, added that Louisiana fisheries are among the best documented businesses in the world.
Feinberg, who oversees the Gulf Coast Claims Facility for BP, has said that lack of documentation is responsible for holing up most of the claims.
But Guidry said extensive documents have been kept since 1999.
"Feinberg says documentation is still a problem," Guidry said. "That just isn't so."
Guidry added that the community has a wide-ranging need to address issues of stress and to find security in their lives. But without payments from BP and with the immediate future of commercial fishing still unknown, security is hard to come by.
George Barisich, president of the United Commercial Fishermen's Association, upbeat and talking fast, tossed a stone at Feinberg's claims' payment methodology, which claims the Gulf fishing industry will have recovered completely by 2012.
"Still no baby oysters yet," Barisich said. "If you don't have a baby, you don't have a crop - it's going to be three or four years, and they say one year. Ain't gonna happen."
Even if fishing were to recover by 2012, public uncertainty about the safety of Gulf seafood will continue to depress sales, fishermen said.
Fishing throughout the Gulf has completely reopened this week, but sick fish are turning up in catches across the Gulf. Fishermen say they are pulling up fish with lesions, and recent discoveries in deformities in tiny organisms at the bottom of the food chain indicate that "something troubling is going on in the Gulf," according to an April 17 report from the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times.
News delivered Wednesday morning that the giant fish meal products and fish oil company, Omega Protein, got more than $44 million in a settlement from Feinberg - the largest settlement yet - added a layer of cynicism.
Feinberg recently received a raise and now makes $1.25 million a month to handle BP's claims process.
Mike Roberts, a commercial fisherman from Barataria, told the group, "Feinberg calls us greedy fishermen, calls us 'spillionaires.'
"There are two spillionaires from this spill: Mr. Feinberg and Omega Protein."
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