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Oil Spill 2010: An Opportunity For Charter Boat Captains

National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling

Editor’s note: This is another in a series of stories by WUWF on the 10th anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The fatal spill began in April 2010 and oil hit Northwest Florida in June that year. The well was capped three months later.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 was a major environmental and economic disaster for the Gulf Coast. 

And even in areas that were untouched by the oil, there were economic effects as the tourism industry tried to recover from a national recession and housing collapse. 

In the city of Destin — dubbed the World’s Luckiest Fishing Village — the oil spill was the “death nail” of the local fishing industry, said Mayor Gary Jarvis. 

Jarvis has been a charter boat captain for about 40 years. Before he was elected mayor in 2018, he was president of the Destin Charter Boat Association and is a founding member of the Charter Fisherman’s Association. 

With tourism down – not to mention the Gulf of Mexico closed — Destin’s 120 charter fishermen and their crews were out of work during the peak season.

“We were all hanging on by the hair of our chinny chin chin,” said Jarvis. “One friend committed suicide. He couldn’t handle the pressure. It shook you at your very foundation. Fishermen are very independent breeds and all the sudden they had no control.”

But there was some light at the end of the dark tunnel. The Vessels of Opportunity program in which BP, the oil company responsible for the spill, employed private vessels to conduct response efforts such as skimming, booming and transporting supplies. Depending on the size of the boat, vessels made between $1,200 and $3,000 per day. Individual crew members made $200 for an eight-hour day. 

Credit Courtesy photo
Gary Jarvis

Jarvis said many boat captains were skeptical of the program at first — it seemed too good to be true. The program was also criticized for not directly targeting out-of-work fishermen. 

“There was abuse of the VOO,” said Jarvis. “All of a sudden you’d see private yacht owners out there. There were no guidelines and they’re always an entrepreneur.” 

Jarvis’ 57-foot-vessel, the Backdown 2, became a supply boat. For about 64 days, he lived on the water. Food, fuel and water were dropped off on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. He gave briefings about the recovery efforts to then-Gov. Charlie Crist, then-state House Speaker Marco Rubio and then-President Barack Obama, and he advocated for the fishing industry. 

Working as a Vessel Of Opportunity was better work than a normal season, but it didn’t last long. And the economic impacts from the spill carried on until 2012, said Jarvis. 

“It took a while to build back,” he said. “People kept asking how safe the seafood was well after the well was capped off.” 

When he skimmed for oil, Jarvis remembers it looked like peanut butter. 

“The oil would dissipate at night and cool and break apart,” he recalled. “But in the warm weather it would rise back up.”

The manpower was no match for Mother Nature, he said. 

“The pretty incredible thing about Mother Nature was that the fuel-eating microbes did a lot of the work,” Jarvis said. 

Credit Petty Officer 1st Class Tasha Tully
A vessel of opportunity works with sorbent boom to collect oil about four miles offshore of Pensacola Pass, Saturday, June 12, 2010. The boom is deployed between two VOOs that drag the boom slowly through the water. If the vessels move too fast oil might flow over the top of the boom and get back into the water.

Gulf fishermen were also helping with the wildlife impacted by the spill. Biologists with Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC)https://youtu.be/GMbdYXojteE"> teamed up with Destin charter boat fishermen to rescue impacted sea turtles from the spill area. Boats went out daily and at least 200 visibly oiled sea turtles were found. The rescued turtles were then taken to Gulf World in Panama City for rehabilitation. 

Now, as the Destin’s mayor during a pandemic, Jarvis faces a whole new set of challenges. But looking back 10 years later, he remembers the lessons learned out in the Gulf. The experience taught him about hard work and adapting.

“It’s all a character builder,” he said. “It thickens your skin and toughens you up mentally and teaches you to be creative.” 

Jennie joined WUWF in 2018 as digital content producer and reporter.