The Category 4 hurricane fractured parts of the industry even more than Katrina, which cost seafood companies more than $ 1 billion in 2005.
NEW ORLEANS – Louisiana oyster farmers, crabbers, shrimpers and fishermen are nothing but adaptable, producing millions of pounds of seafood each year, often in waters that were drylands a generation ago . They fought a devastating oil spill, flooding, changing markets and endless hurricanes just to stay in business.
After Hurricane Ida, however, some question their ability to continue in a seemingly endless cycle of recovery and readjustment.
The Category 4 hurricane that hit Louisiana late last month fractured parts of the industry even worse than Katrina in 2005, which cost seafood companies more than $ 1 billion. Nobody How many boats, docks and processors were lost to Ida’s relentless 150 mph winds is still unclear. The ships that reached the safest ports performed best, but even some of them were destroyed by the fury of the storm.
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 tied to fishing and the Gulf Coast.
“This thing just seemed to beat and beat and beat, kind of like a washing machine,” Nungesser said. “I think that slow storm pounding these boats against the docks, against each other, sank a lot more boats and caused significant damage. “
The story of Ida’s impact on Louisiana’s $ 2.4 billion seafood industry, which employs more than 23,000 people at last count, takes place in places foreigners even have difficult to pronounce: parishes like Plaquemines, Lafourche and Terrebonne, towns and hamlets including Pointe-aux-Chênes, Des Allemandes and Houma. There, the seafood families go back several generations.
The people who make their living on the Gulf bounty are committed to coming back this time around on condition that another hurricane doesn’t wipe them out first. But there are other challenges ahead as Louisiana tries to save both an endangered coastline, an industry, and a way of life.
The fierce wind from Hurricane Ida tore the roof of Motivatit Seafoods so badly that it rained inside the Houma oyster factory when squalls from Hurricane Nicholas blew two weeks later, ruining expensive processing equipment. Across a parking lot, Ida reduced the company’s maintenance shop to a crumpled heap of metal.
“It’s at least 20 times worse than we’ve ever experienced,” 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’s okay. The buildings are at the point where they cannot really be reused.
Oyster production was already in decline in Louisiana due to the hurricanes and the BP oil spill in 2010, and several years of bad flooding virtually wiped out some areas where shellfish grew, in part because a large spillway has had to be opened in 2019, Voisin said.
“Where this state produced more than all the other states combined in the past, we are now just another state with a few oysters,” he said.
Then the coronavirus pandemic forced restaurants in the United States to close last year, killing demand for a product that is best served fresh. While Motivatit Seafoods employed up to 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, get smaller, use what we can and hope to be operational,” he said.
Voisin said he hasn’t yet calculated a dollar estimate of the damage to the company, which also operates boats that harvest oysters, but it’s substantial.
“We hope we can have the vision and the wisdom to continue. It’s going to be a battle, ”he said.
Unable to speak for a decade since cancer surgery, Dale Williams gets by on disability benefits of $ 1,300 a month. Living in a mobile home in Port Sulfur on the west bank of the Mississippi River, he supplements his income by catching shrimp with a small boat he parked in his front yard for Hurricane Ida.
Ida’s Category 4 winds knocked Williams’ trawler onto its side, bending the frame and tearing the nets, but it should be ready to go after around $ 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 with another doing better.
“I miss it,” he wrote.
Still, Williams felt lucky after seeing what happened a few miles down Highway 23, towards the tip of the Louisiana boot. There, dozens of shrimp boats were sunk or damaged in a commercial marina off Lanaux Bay; workers attempted to retrieve one from the dock the day before Hurricane Nicholas hit Ida.
About half of the shrimp fleet was destroyed by Ida in some coastal parishes, said Acy Cooper, president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association. This represents hundreds of boats.
“This is going to be devastating for the industry,” Cooper said. “Every (boat) is a small business that you lose. “
Even the shrimp boats that weren’t damaged were unable to fish for days after Ida due to the lack of electricity and clean water needed to make ice, which is vital for storing the catch, a he declared. A day at the dock means a day with no income, which hurts in an industry already rocked by years of foreign imports, high fuel prices, shifting demand and more.
“The industry is going to take a big hit here,” Cooper said.
COMMUNITY ON THE EDGE
The fate of a handful of rental homes could help determine whether an isolated fishing community on the south coast of Louisiana lives or dies after Hurricane Ida.
Anglers from all over visit Pointe-aux-Chênes, which bills itself as one of the best fishing and crabbing spots in a state proclaimed on car license plates as a “sportsman’s paradise.” Most of the community’s 3,600 residents are Native American or speak Cajun French, and the marina at the end of the main road helps bring money to the modest local economy.
“They are from Illinois. They are from Michigan, Ohio. All kinds of people are coming down, ”said Patti Dardar, who works at the marina and lives a few kilometers from the road in a badly damaged house that has no water or electricity from Ida.
The problem for Pointe-aux-Chênes is that Ida heavily damaged a cluster of rental homes that stand on stilts near the marina docks, about 80 miles southwest of New Orleans. Without housing, visitors who normally buy equipment, fuel, food and beer will not be there for some time to contribute to the economy of the community, which needs every penny it can get. .
Even before Ida, the declining community was fighting to prevent its primary school from merging with that of nearby Montegut. Members of the Pointe au Chien Indian tribe were among those who protested the proposal at a demonstration in April, ahead of the start of the hurricane season.
For now, however, cleaning up Ida’s wreck is the main job of an isolated community which, like others in the far reaches of the state, plays a sometimes forgotten role in the seafood industry. of State. Sunken or damaged commercial fishing boats, shattered docks and shattered houses line the bayou that runs through town.
Dardar doesn’t know when the marina might reopen, but she knows she will. It must be, she said, for the city.
“We have to rebuild and start over,” Dardar said.
OYSTERS ON THE FARM
Mitch Jurisich’s grandparents immigrated to the United States from Croatia in the early 1900s, settling in Bayou LaChute and living in a house surrounded by peach trees, chickens and, just off the shore, parks in Oysters. Today the entire farm is covered with over 4 feet of water, and all that remains of the old camp are wooden stilts around where Jurisich raises oysters near Empire, in Louisiana.
“It was a high hill,” he said, pointing to the submerged beds where large, succulent oysters grow rapidly to maturity in the warm waters of Plaquemines Parish about 60 miles southeast of New Orleans.
Ida’s heavy rains caused flooding of fresh water and sediment in coastal estuaries, killing shellfish, said Jurisich, chairman of the Louisiana Oyster Task Force, an industry group. While farmers still assess their losses, he said, the final numbers will be bad.
“Overall it’s pretty dismal,” he said.
Many in the seafood industry fear that more problems are coming from a method officials are debating to save the Louisiana coastline, which is disappearing in the same way that the old Jurisich property went. Coastal lands have been sinking into the region for years in a process linked in part to oil and gas extraction. Rising sea levels associated with climate change are only making things worse.
To help reclaim land, some advocate a multibillion-dollar plan to divert water from the Mississippi River so that sediments build up new areas where land has been lost in decades past. Opponents fear the project will upset the freshwater-saltwater balance and kill an already faltering industry; an initial federal review found that the benefits would outweigh the damage to the seafood industry.
Combine that uncertainty with demand that is still falling sharply due to the pandemic, and Jurisich said the future for him and his brother’s company, Jurisich Oysters LLC, is far from guaranteed.
“As long as Mother Nature leaves us with something to work with, we’re going to bounce back,” he said. “Natural disasters have existed since the dawn of time. Man-made disasters are so much harder to overcome.