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Louisiana’s struggling seafood industry teetering after Ida

By Jay Reeves Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS — Louisiana’s oyster farmers, crabbers, shrimpers and anglers are nothing if not adaptable, producing millions of pounds of seafood annually, often in water that was dry land a generation ago. They’ve fought off a devastating oil spill, floods, changing markets and endless hurricanes just to stay in business.

After Hurricane Ida, though, some wonder about their ability to continue in a seemingly endless cycle of recovery and readjustment.

The Category 4 hurricane that struck Louisiana late last month fractured some parts of the industry even worse than 2005’s Katrina, which cost seafood businesses more than $1 billion. No one yet knows how many boats, docks and processors were lost because of Ida’s relentless, 150-mph winds. Vessels that made it to the safest harbors fared the best, yet even some of them were destroyed by the storm’s fury.

Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, whose office oversees seafood promotion, said some areas, like Lafitte, were all but wiped out. The damage is a devastating blow to people whose entire lives are intertwined with fishing and the Gulf Coast.

“This thing just seemed to beat and beat and beat, kind of mixing it up like a washing machine,” Nungesser said. “I think that slow-moving storm beating these boats against the docks, against each other, caused a lot more vessels to sink and have major damage.”

The story of Ida’s impact on Louisiana’s $2.4 billion seafood industry, which employs more than 23,000 at last count, is unfolding across places that outsiders struggle to even pronounce: Parishes like Plaquemines, Lafourche, and Terrebonne, cities and hamlets including Pointe-aux-Chenes, Des Allemandes and Houma. There, seafood families go back generations.

The people who make their living off the Gulf bounty are pledging to come back again this time provided another hurricane doesn’t wipe them out first. But there are other challenges ahead as Louisiana tries to save a vanishing coastline, an industry and a way of life, all at the same time.

Raining inside

The ferocious wind from Hurricane Ida tore off so much of the roof of Motivatit Seafoods that it rained inside the oyster plant in Houma when squalls from Hurricane Nicholas blew through two weeks later, ruining expensive processing equipment. Across a parking lot, Ida reduced the company’s maintenance shop to a crumpled heap of metal.

“This is at least 20 times worse than we’ve ever had,” said Steven Voisin, who runs the 50-year-old family business founded by his late brother and father. “It could have been worse, but it doesn’t matter. The buildings are to the extent of not really being able to be reused.”

Oyster production already was down in Louisiana because of hurricanes and the BP oil spill of 2010, and several years of bad flooding virtually wiped out some areas where the shellfish grew, partly because a major spillway had to be opened in 2019, Voisin said.

“Where this state was out-producing all other states combined in the past, now we’re just another state with a few oysters,” he said.

Then, the coronavirus pandemic forced restaurants around the U.S. to close last year, killing demand for a product that’s best served fresh. While Motivatit Seafoods employed as many as 100 people in the past, Voisin said, the current payroll is around 20 people, at least some of whom will help determine how to move forward after Ida.

“We’re going to have to consolidate things, become smaller, use what we can and hope to get up and running,” he said.

Voisin said he has yet to compute a dollar estimate for damage to the company, which also operates boats that harvest oysters, but it’s substantial.

“We hope that we’re able to have the vision and the wisdom to continue. It’s going to be a battle,” he said.

Fractured shrimpers

Unable to speak for a decade since cancer surgery, Dale Williams gets by on disability payments of $1,300 a month. Living in a mobile home at Port Sulphur on the west bank of the Mississippi River, he supplements his income by catching shrimp with a little boat he parked in his front yard for Hurricane Ida.

Ida’s Category 4 winds flipped Williams’ trawler on its side, bending the frame and tearing nets, but it should be ready to go after about $1,500 in repairs, he said in an interview conducted by written notes. The goal is to get back on the water by October, he said, either with the damaged boat or another one that fared better.

“I miss it,” he wrote.

Still, Williams felt fortunate after seeing what happened a few miles down Highway 23, toward the tip of Louisiana’s boot. There, dozens of shrimp boats were sunk or damaged at a commercial marina off Bay Lanaux; workers tried to salvage one at dockside the day before Hurricane Nicholas followed Ida.

About half the shrimping fleet was destroyed by Ida in some coastal parishes, Acy Cooper, president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, said. That amounts to hundreds of boats.

“It’s going to be devastating for the industry,” Cooper said. “Every (boat) is a small business you’re losing.”

Even shrimp boats that weren’t damaged couldn’t fish for days after Ida because of the lack of power and clean water needed to make ice, which is vital to storing the catch, he said. A day at the dock means a day without income, which hurts in an industry already buffeted by years of foreign imports, high fuel prices, shifting 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 houses could help determine whether an isolated fishing community on Louisiana’s southern coast lives or dies after Hurricane Ida.

Anglers from all over visit Pointe-aux-Chenes, which bills itself as having some of the very best fishing and crabbing in a state proclaimed on car license plates as a “Sportsman’s Paradise.” Many of the community’s 3,600 or so residents are Native American or speak Cajun French, and the marina at the end of the main road helps bring cash into the modest local economy.

“They come from Illinois. They come from Michigan, Ohio. All kind of people come down,” said Patti Dardar, who works at the marina and lives just a few miles up the road in a badly damaged home that hasn’t had water or power since Ida.

The problem for Pointe-aux-Chenes is that Ida heavily damaged a group of rental houses that stand on stilts near the marina’s docks, about 80 miles southwest of New Orleans. Without housing, the visitors who normally buy tackle, fuel, food and beer won’t be around for awhile to contribute to the community’s economy, which needs every penny it can get.

Even before Ida, the shrinking community was fighting to prevent its elementary school from being merged with one in nearby Montegut. Members of the Pointe au Chien Indian Tribe were among those who protested the proposal at a demonstration in April, before hurricane season began.

For now, though, cleaning up the wreckage from Ida is the main job for an isolated community that, like others in the far reaches of the state, plays a sometimes-forgotten role in the state’s seafood industry. Sunken or damaged commercial fishing boats, broken docks and splintered homes 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 town.

“We gotta rebuild and start over,” said Dardar.

Oysters on the homestead

Mitch Jurisich’s grandparents immigrated to the United States from Croatia in the early 1900s, settling at Bayou LaChute and living in a house surrounded by peach trees, chickens and, just off the shore, oyster beds. Today, the entire homestead is covered by more than 4 feet of water, and all that remains visible of the old camp are wooden pilings around where Jurisich farms oysters near Empire, Louisiana.

“This was a high hill,” he said, pointing out over submerged beds where big, succulent oysters grow to maturity quickly in the warm waters of Plaquemines Parish about 60 miles southeast of New Orleans.

Ida’s heavy rains caused freshwater and sediment to flood coastal estuaries, killing the shellfish, said Jurisich, chair of the Louisiana Oyster Task Force, an industry group. While farmers are still assessing their losses, he said, the final numbers will be bad.

“Overall, it’s pretty dismal,” he said.

Many in the seafood industry fear more trouble could come from a method officials are debating to save Louisiana’s coastline, which is disappearing similarly to the way the old Jurisich property vanished. Coastal land has been sinking in the region for years in a process that’s linked in part to oil and gas extraction. Rising waters associated with climate change are only making matters worse.

To help regain land, some are advocating a multi-billion dollar plan to divert Mississippi River water in a way that would cause sediment to build new acreage where land was lost in decades past. Opponents fear the project would upset the freshwater-saltwater balance and kill an industry that’s already teetering; an initial federal review found the benefit would outweigh harm to the seafood industry.

Combine that uncertainty with demand that’s still off sharply because of the pandemic, and Jurisich said the future of he 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’re going to bounce back,” he said. “Natural disasters have been around since the dawn of time. Man-made disasters are so much harder to recover from.”