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Fishing "Shut Down," Oyster Beds Destroyed by Katrina

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
September 12, 2005
 
Like so much else in the region, the Gulf Coast's venerable fisheries
are in tatters after Hurricane Katrina.

David Bourgeois, of the Louisiana State University's AgCenter Research and Extension, reports that fisheries throughout two of Louisiana's largest southern parishes lie in ruins.

"Commercial fishing has pretty much shut down," he said. "We have no dock to offload a catch, no refrigeration, no ice, and no fuel."

Bourgeois is a state agent for fisheries in the coastal country west and south of New Orleans.

"Down at Grand Isle [Louisiana,] where lots of my fishermen dock their boats, the biggest dock is gone, and there's a 65-foot [20-meter] steel-hulled trawler on its side where the wharf used to be."

Bourgeois estimates that 4,000 families in the two ravaged parishes make their living from commercial fishing. At the moment they aren't making a living at all.

"As soon as we can somewhat recover I'm sure that some guys will start fishing again," he said. "But right now the outlook is pretty bleak. I'd imagine that it will be weeks if not months before most of these guys will be even able to at least start fishing again."

The discouraging scene is the same along much of the Gulf Coast.

Fishermen and state agencies are reporting that Katrina took a devastating toll on the local sea harvests, including shrimp, crab, and especially oysters.

On Friday the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries released a preliminary estimate suggesting that the state's revenue from commercial fishing may take a 1.3 billion-dollar (U.S.) hit from Katrina—a 40 percent decline from 2003.

But the storm's devastation was so vast that exact numbers are still uncertain.

Critical Shrimp, Oyster Seasons Disrupted

On the fishing calendar, Katrina's timing was particularly poor. The fall harvest of white shrimp (Penaeus setiferus) would be in full swing just now, and many shrimpers would be earning much of their annual income.

Instead they face a myriad of on-shore hurdles and debris-laden waters that hamper their efforts.

"Trawling with a bottom trawl or even skimmer nets, they are getting all kinds of debris," Bourgeois said.

The shrimp industry was already challenged before Katrina struck because of competition from foreign imports, particularly farmed Asian shrimp, and rising fuel prices that made catches more costly.

Meanwhile, commercial crabbers are also facinga grim harvest as they search for their pots. Many traps left at sea were washed away to parts unknown.

The Gulf's oyster industry, however, may face the most daunting prospects of all.

Oysters are cultivated in a process called seeding. Small oysters are placed on reefs where they grow to harvest size over a two-year period.

"When a storm like this comes, it churns that water, covers the oysters with silt or mud, and they die," Bourgeois explained.

Stacey Felzenberg, spokesperson for the National Fisheries Institute in Arlington, Virginia, reported that two weeks after the storm, her organization is still trying to come to grips with damage assessments.

Felzenberg and Louisiana officials estimate that two-thirds of Louisiana's oysters may have been destroyed.

"Louisiana is the number one oyster producer in the nation," she said. "They contribute over 40 percent of the U.S. supply of oysters."

She also noted that thousands of jobs in the region depend on the oyster industry.

One such job belongs to Mike Voisin, the owner of Motivatit Seafoods in Houma, Louisiana.

Voisin is a seventh-generation oysterman and chairman of the Louisiana Oyster Task Force, a state governmental agency.

Houma escaped the worst of Katrina's wrath and now houses tens of thousands of refugees, but Voisin knows that many of his colleagues are in dire straits.

"I've spoken with lots of people in the industry in Louisiana and Mississippi, and they've suffered anywhere from significant to catastrophic damages," he said.

Voisin notes that the oyster season was supposed to kick off on September 7, but now the oystering community will have to reassess its schedule, given the decimated oyster beds that will take several years to recover.

Based on damages from hurricanes Ivan and Andrew, state wildlife authorities fear that 99 percent of oysters between Bayou Lafourche—in the heart of southern Louisiana—and the Mississippi state line were lost. That could spell a loss of nearly 300 million dollars (U.S.) over the next two years.

"Only about a third of the [state's] oyster beds are open, those located many miles from the storm, but there will be zero percent open in some areas," Voisin said. "How should we manage that situation, so that the Gulf oyster community will rise again from what today looks like ashes?"

Fishing Not First on Some Minds

As elsewhere along the Gulf Coast, many in the fishing community are focused not on reviving their industry but on the daily necessities of life in a ravaged region.

"I was with a harvester friend yesterday and we didn't talk oysters," Voisin said. "We talked about, How are we going to find you a house? Where are you going to live? Where might my kids go to school? They are conversations I never dreamed I'd have with people."

Unfortunately the road back to normalcy looks like a long one.

"A good friend has an oyster processing plant in the French Quarter, and of course federal troops have taken over New Orleans," Voisin said. "Even if he gets back to his plant, 90 percent of his business is in New Orleans. When will New Orleans get back?"

No matter how crucial the industry is, he says, the region's more immediate needs must take priority.

"The infrastructure is just wiped away," LSU's Bourgeois said, "and reestablishing a seafood dock is probably going to be down on the priority list."

Agencies and hard-hit fishermen alike acknowledge that aid is desperately needed.

"We're survivors here and we know what we need to do," Bourgeois said. "But it's going to take a long time to do it with our own resources. If we had some help it could be done a lot sooner."

"I've seen a tremendous amount of hope, and I've been amazed," Voisin added. "Henry Ford said adversity creates character in men, and there's a lot of character being built around here right now."

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