October 1, 2005
Gulf Fisheries See Slow Recovery
EMPIRE, Louisiana -- The fishermen whose shrimp and oyster boats survived Hurricane Katrina consider themselves the fortunate few, but now they wonder how they will survive in an industry gutted by the powerful storm.
Commercial fishing, a $2.75 billion a year industry in Louisiana, is all but closed down along its southeastern Gulf coast. According to official estimates, it could be months or years before the region's fishermen are back in business.
Shellfish must be tested for bacterial and chemical contamination, while damaged oyster beds could take as long as two years to return to life, officials say. Many of the shrimp that live in the coastal marshes die when the sediment-laden water is churned up in a storm.
Even if there were shrimp and oysters ready to be caught, countless boats lie in broken piles, upended and useless.
In tiny Mississippi River delta towns like Empire, where generations of families have worked on the water, fishermen who fled Katrina are returning to devastation. Communities have been washed away and remain inaccessible.
"It don't get any worse than this. Nobody has anything left to fish with, even if the grounds was open," said Jimmy Morgan, 54, an oyster fisherman like his father and grandfather before him.
Louisiana has ranked as one of the nation's leading oyster producers, but experts say as much as two-thirds of production has been affected.
In Empire, not only are many boats in splinters, but docks are washed away. The water is covered with spilled diesel fuel and floating debris and stinks from rotting garbage.
"I've got no boat, no crop, no house," Morgan said, turning away in tears.
Southeastern Louisiana, where the state's fishing industry is concentrated, lay directly in the path of Katrina, which hit on August 29.
Now Empire's normally bustling marina is eerily silent. The few fishermen who have come home guess that two-thirds of roughly a thousand boats there are beyond repair.
Those with salvageable boats worry how long it will be before they are earning money again.
"Fishermen only know how to fish," said Vatroslav Garbin, 54, who moved from Croatia in 1971. "I am too old to do anything else."
Garbin protected his boat by moving it west to escape Katrina, then back east to escape Rita.
"Lately I just run from hurricane to hurricane, trying to save my boat," he said.
Many of their colleagues may never return, they say. Many of the ruined boats belonged to Vietnamese immigrant fishermen who now have nothing, they say.
"It's nothing but rubble," said Morgan. "That's their lives, right there. Rubble."
State officials estimate Katrina-related losses to Louisiana's seafood industry at $1.1 billion, or about 40 percent of the industry's total retail value. The impact of Rita, which struck further west, is still being assessed.
Recovery will be hampered by infrastructure damage, scarce and expensive fuel, labor shortages and debris in the water, said Jimmy Guidry, a health officer at the state Department of Health and Hospitals.
The fishermen complain that the remote region has escaped the notice of relief agencies.
"Nobody cares about us here," said Ioan Miol, 51, a Romanian immigrant. "They come down, take a ride, and go."
Shrimper Tracy Barrois, 43, said the storm ruined what should have been a good year.
"We was going to have a very good season," Barrois said. "I could see it coming."
(Additional reporting by Hilary Burke in Baton Rouge)