Louisiana’s ailing seafood industry is surging after Ida

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“This thing just seemed to hit and hit and hit, kind of messed up like a washing machine,” said Nungesser. “I think the slow moving storm that hit these boats against the docks and against each other resulted in many more ships sinking and taking great damage.”

The story of Ida’s influence on Louisiana’s $ 2.4 billion fishing industry, which recently employs more than 23,000 people, unfolds in places that are hard for outsiders to pronounce: communities like Plaquemines, Lafourche and Terrebonne, cities and towns Hamlets like Pointe-aux-Chenes, Des Allemandes and Houma. Seafood families go back there for generations.

The people who make their living on the bounty of the Gulf promise to come back this time, provided another hurricane doesn’t wipe them out first. But other challenges lie ahead as Louisiana seeks to save a disappearing coastline, industry, and way of life all at the same time.

INSIDE RAIN

The strong winds from Hurricane Ida tore so much from the roof of Motivatit Seafoods that it rained at the oyster factory in Houma when two weeks later gusts from Hurricane Nicholas blew through and ruined expensive processing facilities. Across a parking lot, Ida reduced the company’s maintenance facility to a crumpled heap of metal.

“This is at least 20 times worse than ever,” said Steven Voisin, who runs the 50-year-old family business founded by his late brother and father. “It could have been worse, but that doesn’t matter. The buildings are so big that they can’t really be reused.”

In Louisiana, oyster production had already declined due to hurricanes and the 2010 BP oil spill, and several years of severe flooding have practically wiped out some areas where the shellfish grew, in part because a large overflow had to be opened in 2019, Voisin said.

“Where this state outperformed all the other states combined in the past, we are now just a state with a few oysters,” he said.

Then last year the coronavirus pandemic forced restaurants in the US to close, destroying demand for a product that is best served fresh. While Motivatit Seafoods had up to 100 employees in the past, according to Voisin, the current payroll is around 20 employees, at least some of whom will help decide how things should continue after Ida.

“We have to consolidate things, get smaller, use what we can and hope to get things going again,” he said.

Voisin said he has not yet calculated a dollar estimate of the damage to the company, which also operates boats that harvest oysters, but it is substantial.

“We hope we have the vision and the wisdom to move on. It will be a struggle,” he said.

BROKEN PRAWNS

Dale Williams, unable to speak for a decade since having cancer surgery, manages on a disability benefit of $ 1,300 a month. He lives in an RV in Port Sulfur on the west bank of the Mississippi and supplements his income by catching shrimp on a small boat that he parked in his front yard for Hurricane Ida.

Ida’s Category 4 wind turned Williams’ trawler on its side, bent the frame and tore the nets, but it should be operational after about $ 1,500 of repairs, he said in an interview kept by written notes. The goal is to be back on the water by October, he said, either with the damaged boat or another that was doing better.

“I miss it,” he wrote.

Still, Williams felt lucky after seeing what happened a few miles down Highway 23 towards Louisiana’s boot tip. There dozens of shrimp boats were sunk or damaged in a commercial marina off Bay Lanaux; Workers tried to rescue Ida a day before Hurricane Nicholas Ida.

About half of the shrimp fleet was destroyed by Ida in some coastal communities, said Acy Cooper, president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association. That’s hundreds of boats.

“It’s going to be devastating to the industry,” said Cooper. “Every (boat) is a little business that you lose.”

Even undamaged shrimp boats could not fish for days after Ida due to a lack of electricity and clean water to make ice, which is essential for storing the catch, he said. A day at the dock means a day with no income, which hurts in an industry that has been shaped by years of foreign imports, high fuel prices, fluctuating demand and more.

“The industry is going to take a big hit here,” said Cooper.

COMMUNITY ON THE EDGE

The fate of a handful of rental homes could help determine whether an isolated fishing community on Louisiana’s south coast lives or dies after Hurricane Ida.

Anglers from all over the world visit Pointe-aux-Chenes, which calls itself one of the best angling and shrimp fisheries in a state called “Sportsman’s Paradise” on license plates. Many of the parish’s 3,600 or so residents are Native American or speak Cajun French, and the marina at the end of Main Street helps bring money to the humble local economy.

“You’re from Illinois. You’re from Michigan, Ohio. All kinds of people come here,” said Patti Dardar, who works at the marina and lives just a few miles up the street in a badly damaged house with no water or power since Ida.

The problem for Pointe-aux-Chenes is that Ida badly damaged a group of rental houses that stand on stilts near the marina docks, about 80 miles southwest of New Orleans. Without housing, the visitors, who typically buy equipment, fuel, groceries, and beer, will be absent for a while to contribute to the community’s economy, which needs every penny it can get.

Even before Ida, the shrinking community fought against merging its primary school with one in nearby Montegut. Members of the Pointe au Chien Indian tribe were among those who held a demonstration against the proposal in April before the start of hurricane season.

For now, however, clearing up the rubble of Ida is the main task for an isolated community that, like others in the most remote regions of the state, plays a sometimes-forgotten role in the state’s fishing industry. Sunken or damaged commercial fishing boats, broken docks, and splintered houses line the bayou that runs through town.

Dardar doesn’t know when the marina might reopen, but she knows it will. It must, she said, for the city.

“We have to rebuild and start over,” said Dardar.

OYSTERS ON THE FARM

Mitch Jurisich’s grandparents emigrated from Croatia to the United States in the early 20th century, settled in Bayou LaChute and lived in a house just off the coast surrounded by peach trees, chickens and oyster beds. Today the entire homestead is covered in more than 4 feet of water, and all that can be seen of the old camp are wooden stakes around the Jurisich oyster farm near Empire, Louisiana.

“That was a high hill,” he said, pointing to submerged beds where large, juicy oysters quickly ripen in the warm waters of Plaquemines Parish about 60 miles southeast of New Orleans.

The heavy rains in Ida caused freshwater and sediments to flood estuaries, killing the shellfish, said Jurisich, chairman of the Louisiana Oyster Task Force, an industry group. While farmers are still estimating their losses, the final numbers will be poor.

“Overall it’s pretty bleak,” he said.

Many in the fishing industry fear that a method officials are debating to save the Louisiana coast could create more trouble, much like the old Jurisich property disappearing. Coastal land has been sinking in the region for years, which is partly related to oil and gas production. Rising waters linked to climate change only make matters worse.

To reclaim land, some are advocating a multi-billion dollar plan to divert Mississippi waters in such a way that sediments would create new acreage that has been lost in past decades. Opponents fear the project will upset the freshwater-saltwater balance and kill an already volatile industry; An initial state review found that the benefits to the fishing industry would outweigh the harm.

Combine that uncertainty with demand that is still lagging behind due to the pandemic, and Jurisich said the future of him and his brother’s company, Jurisich Oysters LLC, is far from guaranteed.

“As long as Mother Nature leaves us something out there to work with, we will rest,” he said. “Natural disasters have been around since the beginning of time. Man-made disasters are so much more difficult to recover.”


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