Ooze of the Fishermen
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Ooze of the Fishermen

Whether you’re a fan of shrimp cocktail or have given up drinking shellfish entirely, you may have noticed that our fishy things are starting to cost more. All because of a silly, untapped underwater oil gusher that’s put a crimp in local fishing and, depending on which websites you’re visiting, doomed the planet. And in the face of this catfish emergency, big business as usual is driving the agenda. Yes, I’m talking about those soulless, money-grubbing, profit-gouging… fishermen.

Despite what you’d like to believe from watching entertainment like Deadliest Catch, A Perfect Storm and SpongeBob Squarepants – that fishermen are industrious salty-faced brutes working under conditions that would crush the soul of a dweller in the ninth circle of hell – the U.S. Commercial Fishing Industry is no mom-and-pop used bait shack but a $4 billion business, with more than half of that coming from the Gulf Coast (motto: “In your face, rest of fishing industry!”). And these collective billionaire crybabies have got their waders in a bunch over a little oil spill barely the size of one of our smaller states. (For now.)

First, the local seafood industry expects the owners of the no-longer-off-shore rig, British Petroleum – whose 2010 first quarter profits were up 85% from last year to nearly $5 billion – to clean up the mess, at a cost, according to Barclay’s ascot-sporting investment bankers, of $1 billion over the next ten months. These same irate local fishermen – with literally nothing better to do as a result of a federal fishing ban across four states – also expect tougher drilling regulations on the already beleaguered oil industry, whose 2009 profits “slumped” after a record decade-long haul by the big five oil companies totaling nearly three-quarters of a trillion dollars. And now, the final indignity: a movement is afoot to put poor BP Oil on the hook for future losses to fishing, tourism, wildlife, and the sale of souvenir shot glasses expected to total billions of dollars. Finally, sir, have you left no sense of decency?

But while the negative impact of the oil spill is expected to be felt for decades, BP Oil remains haughty and unflappable… and not just because they’re British: no matter how horrific things get – up to and including the release of an undersea monster not seen since prehistoric times or 1955’s It Came From Beneath The Sea – current federal law actually caps their liability for economic damages at $75 million.

Let’s put a $75 million dollar fine in “perspective,” or as I like to think of it, a way of looking at something that causes a sense of nausea: way back in 2008 when Exxon reported the largest annual profit in U.S. history, the company was taking in revenue of roughly $85 billion in a single quarter. That’s nearly one billion dollars per day, or an hourly wage of about $40 million. Now imagine any other industry – say, fishing – for whom the worst possible fine, no matter how much damage they wreaked, could only cost them… two hour’s pay. In the frenzy to fill their boats with scaly, flapping profits, the seas would boil, wine turn sour, dogs grow mad, and all creatures become languid, causing to man burning fevers, hysterics, and phrensies, whatever that last one is.

All of which goes a long way to explaining why oil companies seem to act with a winning combination of disregard and impunity, like an NFL quarterback. But you might still be asking yourself, if you were prone to anguished yearning for things to make sense, How can a trillion-dollar industry's liability be limited to roughly what a single company earns in a few hours? Because of Congressional legislation passed in the wake of the Exxon Valdez tanker grounding, when nothing was more important than protecting oil companies from suffering losses that might impede their ability to spill vast quantities of oil on their way to accumulating the wealth of the universe. (In an amusingly appalling side note, Exxon, in order to protect itself against a looming punitive judgment in the Valdez case, obtained a $4.8 billion credit line from J.P. Morgan & Co. in 1994 – the first modern credit default swap, the unholy bastard spawn of the oil and banking industries, born, like Damian, to bring ruin upon reaching adolescence.)

But even that $75 million pittance is too much for Transocean, owners of the sunken rig. In a bold legal move once favored by 19th century pirates, Transocean has cited an obscure 1851 maritime law limiting its liability to the "post-accident value of its vessel and cargo”: $27 million, or less than one quarter of one-percent of 2009 revenues. It makes one yearn to be pillaged and raped by actual pirates.

So enjoy that shrimp cocktail, and remember that fish oil is supposed to be good for you. As for the billionaire fishmongers of the Gulf Coast, they can only lick their oily wounds, and heed the words of another smug Brit, fifteenth-century poet Alexander Barclay, who observed, "The great fish eat the small."

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A Modest Proposal for a film by Kurt Engfehr and Ken Pisani.
2006 Ken Pisani and Kurt Engfehr.  All rights reserved.
All "Blogging Poorly" posts  Ken Pisani.