Venezuela state oil company faces possible legal battle with fishermen over oil slick

By Fabiola Sanchez, AP
Friday, June 25, 2010

Fisherman decry oil slick fouling Venezuela lake

CARACAS, Venezuela — Fish and birds covered with tar-like oil are washing up on the eastern shores of Venezuela’s largest body of water, angering fishermen who fear their livelihood is at stake because of the country’s state-run oil company.

Government officials claim their critics are exaggerating the size of the slick allegedly caused by pipeline leaks. But some 600 fishermen from Zulia state have vowed to take legal action.

“Someone throws a fishing net down to the bottom and it comes out filled with oil,” said Alfonso Moreno, a 49-year-old fisherman.

Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez says pipeline leaks probably causing the slick are being fixed, and cleanup crews are retrieving the crude. He says the problem is being blown out of proportion, saying it “cannot be compared with the spill in the Gulf of Mexico.”

The size of the Maracaibo slick is difficult to determine, partly because the government has not provided any official figures. Alfonso Gutierrez, president of Zulia’s association of engineers, estimates the oil has covered about 38 square miles (100 square kilometers) of the lake’s 5,335-square-mile (13,80 square-kilometer) surface. That’s a fraction of the size of the gulf oil slick, which earlier this month was projected to be more than 3,300 square miles (8,500 square kilometers), but is now far too dispersed for accurate estimates.

Lake Maracaibo is a large brackish lake that opens up into the Caribbean Sea. Fed by several rivers, it’s commonly considered a lake rather than a bay.

Moreno said his daily catch has fallen from about 220 pounds (100 kilograms) of fish a day before the oil appeared roughly two months ago to about 22 pounds (10 kilograms).

Fishermen plan to launch a drive next week to gather signatures and present them to the Attorney General’s Office along with demands for compensation, Moreno said.

The oil also is fouling areas along the lake’s eastern shore used for harvesting fresh water shrimp and crabs, Moreno said.

will not be displayed