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Saturday, September 24, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Louisiana's $3 billion seafood industry left crippled after hurricane

Chicago Tribune

GRAND ISLE, La. — Standing near a ruined marina on this tiny island where Hurricane Katrina made landfall, Wayne Estay is surrounded by the rubble of America's costliest natural disaster and the mangled debris of what may be a dying slice of American life.

Commercial fishing boats — too many to count — have been battered beyond repair, overturned or sunk.

The teeming docks where millions of tons of seafood — shrimp, oysters, blue crabs and fish — have been unloaded over the decades no longer exist.

The factory that produces the ice needed by every waterman storing fresh seafood within 30 miles is gone.

And the rich fishing grounds seem profoundly toxic anyway, with dead fish floating on the surface and a nauseating stench rising from thick, inky waters.

The Louisiana seafood industry — a dynamic economic machine that produces an estimated 35 percent of North America's oysters, 46 percent of its shrimp and 28 percent of its blue crabs — was struggling well before the powerful hurricane barreled into the Gulf Coast more than three weeks ago.

Aggressive foreign fishing competition was taking a heavy toll, market prices had been in the doldrums for years, skyrocketing gas prices were eating into already small profit margins and coastal erosion had consumed roughly half of the marshes that existed in the early 1900s.

But Katrina dealt a blow to these sheltered, salty bayous far beyond dollar signs.

Those who for generations have hauled much of America's seafood — people who have worked the waters and ropes until their hands were rubbed so smooth they no longer bear fingerprints — are virtually out of business for the foreseeable future. Even if their boats were not lost, they have been prohibited from fishing until federal biologists can determine whether the filthy water has contaminated the seafood. Most troubling, virtually every link in the fishing infrastructure has been wiped out — there are no dockside gas pumps, no seafood processing sheds, few operational marinas.

An estimated 4,800 commercial fishermen in Louisiana have become the long-term victims of Katrina. These are families who subsist on shrimp gumbo four days a week, who still speak with a Cajun accent difficult for outsiders to understand, who often are working the water by the time they are 5 or 6. Interviews revealed that almost none has insurance for their boats, which can cost more than $250,000 each.

Herman Helmer Sr., 78, who spent his first full day shrimping with his father 72 years ago, looked out at an empty bayou that normally would be dotted with fishing vessels this time of year — the height of shrimping season.

"I'd rather die than not be on the water," he said quietly. "And this might kill me."

Seafood is a nearly $3 billion industry in a state with an $18.7 billion budget. But nearly 99 percent of the state's oyster population was destroyed when Katrina roiled the bayous' waters so much that oyster beds were left beneath several feet of mud and sediment, starving them of oxygen and destroying them for years.

The loss of this year's shrimp season — which goes from now through November — is predicted to cost some $540 million. The lost oyster crops will result in some $150 million in revenue shortfalls per year for as many as three years. The state's Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has estimated that the total cost of Katrina to the industry — including infrastructure damage and the loss to seafood distributors and retailers — will run upward of $1.1 billion next year alone.

One of the keys to the industry's recovery will be the results of a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration test of the region's fishing waters. Since last week, the vessel the Nancy Foster has worked off the Gulf Coast to study the effects of Katrina on the ecosystem. Biologists are testing fish and shrimp for evidence of toxic contamination that might affect human health.

Steve Murawski, director of scientific programs for NOAA, said this week that no findings were available. But any contamination of the food chain likely would hit the region's key exports — including shrimp and oysters — hard.

"Mollusks and shellfish are most at risk," he said. "They sit in one place and filter feed, so they are definitely the most susceptible critters."

Although so much has been debated about what the loss of New Orleans and its vibrant culture would mean for the United States, what would the loss of a several-hundred-year-old bayou fishing culture mean?

"Everyone loses a piece of America if we die off," said Floyd Lusseign, whose 17-year-old son recently bought his first shrimping vessel and was to be his family's fifth generation to work the waters of Barataria Bayou near Grand Isle.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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