CORTEZ — The little 1912 Cortez Schoolhouse was quiet, even though 40 people sat in its quaint embrace.
Among them was Gene Ames, 50, a commercial fisherman and owner of two local water-related businesses, who predicted the massive oil spill in the Gulf would kill the local fishing industry.
“I think that as a community, this will be the last straw for fishermen,” said Ames, who argued fishermen have been “beat down” by increasingly stringent federal regulation and the financial backlash of the BP oil spill would finish them off.
“It’s scary,” he added.
It was a glum group of local fishermen and women, those who operate seafood emporiums and restaurants, and others who might lose financially as a result of BP spill inking Gulf waters.
They were attending a meeting organized by a high-profile South Florida law firm Thursday urging them to band together against BP.
Representatives of the law firm Alters, Boldt, Brown, Rash and Culmo, P.A., told the group that there is strength in numbers and that there will be — “inevitably” — a loss of income resulting from the massive spill.
“We’re here to tell the community how important it is to be united against BP and other culprits in this event,” said David C. Rash, an attorney with the firm.
“This is a really a watershed moment,” Rash told the group, which met at the schoolhouse, near where a number of fishing firms do business.
Although oil has not yet touched Florida’s coastline, the prognosis is that the state eventually will be affected, Rash said, noting it’s “just a matter of time.”
He urged those attending to sign a contract with his firm to help them litigate claims against BP, whose Deepwater Horizon well has been leaking massive amounts of oil after a fire and explosion last month.
Rash guessed the oil spill case would probably be the largest multi-district litigation ever filed.
“It will be monumental, but it will be done,” he said.
The toxic plume of oil could wipe out spawning grounds for many species, meaning financial hardship for fishermen years into the future, Rash said.
“It is something that has to be done right because peoples’ livelihoods depend on the Gulf of Mexico,” he said of the claims process.
After the meeting, attendees lined up for copies of the contract.
“I’m going to think about it,” said Kirt Aylward, 44, a local commercial fisherman, who wanted to read it at home.
Karen Bell, office manager at A.P. Bell Fish Co., a local wholesale and retail firm, said she learned a lot from the discussion, saying, “I think they know what they’re doing.”
Then she wondered what she might do if her company could no longer buy fish to sell.
Already, the company is freezing grouper because customers erroneously think it is contaminated with oil and are refusing to buy it, she said.
Also in the audience was Martha Wright, 56, chief financial officer for The Chiles Group, which operates three restaurants.
“We’re very dependent on seafood, dependent on the tourist industry, and on the prices of seafood,” she said after the meeting. “I strongly support our local fishermen.”
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7031.