In the summer of 2014, Skyland Seafood quietly shut down. In Mobile, Alabama, where the shop had been located for 17 years, Skyland’s demise caused a small, heartfelt shock wave, said customer Alice Lang, 67, who regularly mourns the store’s closing in conversations with her neighbors. As she prepared her family’s Christmas gumbo, Lang added that she felt uncertain about the seafood she’d just bought. It was a worry she hadn’t had in years, because she trusted Phoung Nguyen, Skyland’s owner. “Phoung Nguyen was my seafood guy. With him, everything was fresh from the water,” she said.
His customers say that six days a week, Nguyen purchased just enough freshly caught seafood to sell that day. When customers bought brown or white shrimp, they waited as he stood behind the counter and took off the heads. When they bought fish, he fileted it on the table in front of them.
But today, Nguyen’s shop is shuttered and silent, a victim of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil-rig explosion on April 20, 2010. “Everybody knows that BP helped shut him down,” Lang said.
Nguyen and his customers blame BP’s labyrinthine claims-processing system, which still hasn’t paid him for the $440,000 in losses he sustained in 2010, when there was no seafood to sell because of the spill. The figure was determined by comparing that year’s paltry sales with a tally of past sales, and was documented in hundreds of pages submitted by his New Orleans–based lawyer, Joel Waltzer.
Though Skyland Seafood was just one small shop, its closing resounds well beyond Mobile as an example of the small mom-and-pop stores and family-run wholesalers that have struggled to stay in business after more than 3 million barrels of oil began spewing into the Gulf. These operations have made up the heart of the Gulf Coast seafood industry for generations, a lattice of local businesses that crisscross the coast from Florida to Texas. Yet they can’t seem to get compensation from BP for their modest claims.
Those who work with the water here know catastrophe. They have lived all their lives with the threat and aftermath of hurricanes. But even after the most destructive storms, as people struggled to rebuild, their boats have typically returned to the sea, bringing back the steady stream of fish, crabs, and oysters they rely on.
But the sea is uncertain now.
After the explosion, the Macondo Prospect well gushed for three months. By May, the Louisiana crude oil had traveled 98 miles north to Alabama’s shores, in a gooey mess that officials described as tar balls, tar patties, tar mousse, and tar mats, some the size of a school bus. In the water itself, thick plumes of submerged oil with the consistency of beef liver stretched for miles, fishermen said.
Five years later, many of the fish that fed the Gulf’s vast seafood industry have yet to come back. Fishermen tell of trawling the waters all night and not bringing home enough fish to pay for their fuel. “I don’t know when it will be back to normal,” said Nguyen, who worries about his customers, his livelihood, and his long-standing BP claim.