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Louisiana fishermen say media, not oil, killing trade

May 11, 2010

Louisiana's charter fishermen are slamming US media coverage of the Gulf oil spill for doing more damage to the tourism industry than the slick itself, with livelihoods at risk.

"Before the spill, I had three days open this month. Now I got all kinds of days open," charter boat captain Chris Wilson told AFP, as he cut up a dozen-strong bounty of speckled trout, channel bass and even yellowfin tuna he caught with clients.

Venice Marina, proudly proclaiming itself "The Fishing Capital of the World" is all deserted but for Wilson -- the only fisherman preparing a catch -- and some bored restaurant staff standing around the empty wharf-side bar.

But Wilson's friend and Venice Marina's former owner Dave Ballay does not blame the mammoth and growing oil slick in the nearby Gulf of Mexico.

Instead, people here blame the media, which day after night for over two weeks has detailed the doom and gloom facing the coast and its beleaguered residents.

"Ninety-five percent of the state of Louisiana's waters are still fishable," Ballay said with a bemused but angered tone.

All fishing off Louisiana's coast east of the Mississippi River has been closed since April 30, but boats leaving from Venice can simply turn westward when they leave the marina.

Last week, officials moved to ban areas west of Mississippi but only for those catching shrimp.

"The area that is closed, which to tell the truth is mostly a precaution, just a drop in the bucket," Ballay said.

"There are huge parts of the state's waters (that are) open, but that's not the story the media wants to tell -- it's got to bleed to read, and the industry is taking the hit. It's terrible."

The marina's current owner Bill Butler bought the property with his brother Mike from Ballay in 2002 and rebuilt the place entirely after 2005's catastrophic Hurricane Katrina.

He stood somberly in the shade, watching Wilson expertly fillet the catch and casually toss fishheads into a waiting bucket.

In May, there should be 10 to 15 more professionals like Wilson, boat captains each with three, four, five or more clients, Butler said with a rueful grin.

"The media were the ones who killed it. They didn't do us much justice. Happy stories don't sell," he said, flicking his head at the national media trucks from NBC, CBS and a local "Eyewitness News" affiliate idling in the marina's parking lot.

A recreational fisherman can usually expect to get three or four calls from prospective visitors each day, lining up trips for the months ahead, according to Ballay.

But this is no normal year. Even if the oil never reaches this part of the shore from the gushing wellhead -- spewing an estimated rate of 210,000 gallons a day from under a sunken BP-leased rig some 50 miles (80 kilometers) off the coast -- its impact will be felt for years.

"Now, the phone's not ringing. People think we're covered in oil down here," Ballay snorted, standing in the blazing sun. The dock is clean, and quiet.

"People don't think they can come. Why? Because the media tells them they can't," he added.

Local officials back the 2.4-billion-dollar a year commercial and recreational fishing industry by insisting that seafood pulled from open waters are completely safe.

"The negative media is positively doing more damage to the industry than the oil. The coverage is essentially just about 'put these men out of business,'" Ballay said.

Representatives from the Small Business Administration (SBA), a federal program providing loans to businesses affected economically by the spill, handed out flyers on the dock and stapled factsheets about applications onto notice boards.

With BP pledging to foot the bill for the recovery and cleanup, the SBA is advertising its loans as providing "much-needed cash flow while waiting for payment of any claims."

Realizing the long-term needs of the community in this fishing- and tourism-heavy part of Louisiana, the SBA opened six new "Business Recovery Centers" across the southern part of the state on Monday.

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