Fishermen Push for Financial Help
Their industry in shambles, Gulf Coast fishermen who were omitted from the government’s $29-billion hurricane relief package hope to convince federal officials next month that their post-Hurricane Katrina plight is worthy of financial help.
Even in areas of south Louisiana and Mississippi not wiped out by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, fishermen have been slow to return as they try to find temporary housing for their families and rebuild homes. Many lost their boats. Some areas still have no electricity.
Louisiana’s $2.5-billion-a-year commercial fishing industry produces 25% of all seafood in the U.S., according to the state. Figures on storm losses are difficult to determine, but for September, only 5% of the state’s fishermen reported catches.
Representatives of the U.S. Commerce Department will tour devastated areas of lower Plaquemines Parish, Grand Isle and the Mississippi Gulf Coast next week, said Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board.
Smith said he hoped the trip would expedite the delivery of bare essentials, such as Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers, and result in other resources to revive the centuries-old industry. The board says it doesn’t have a specific funding request, but it needs money to rebuild marinas, docks, icehouses and processing plants -- projects that will run into the millions of dollars.
“They have to see it for themselves to understand,” Smith said. “The infrastructure is completely gone -- no bait shops, no marinas.”
Jules Nunez, a Lafitte fish and seafood merchant for more than 50 years, said only about 10% of the pre-Katrina fishermen on his payroll had returned. Across the coast, less than 25% of fishermen are now back, Smith noted.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Nunez said. “Katrina took out a lot of people, but the real damage was Rita, the floodwater.”
Just three weeks after Katrina’s winds lashed coastal Louisiana, Rita’s storm surge from the Gulf of Mexico left much of Lafitte, a fishing village 28 miles south of New Orleans, under several feet of water. Now, white trailers issued by FEMA line properties and driveways where trawling boats once rested.
Lafitte’s shrimp season ended recently, with merchants reporting large, plentiful shrimp but only a handful of fishermen to bring them in. Now that offshore fish and crab seasons are in full swing, it appears fishermen again will be scarce.
Complicating matters, the storms took out two of the state’s biggest seafood processing facilities and two of its largest shrimp docks, Smith said. Fishermen also are facing high fuel costs coupled with low seafood prices.