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One Man's Opinion: For post-hurricane fisheries, less is more

The fishermen and processors who survived should do
    all right. With so few fishermen on the water, there's a lot
    more fish and shrimp to spread around among the remaining boats
    and plants.
By Peter Redmayne
September 01, 2006

Ayear after hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the Gulf Coast's seafood industry, fishermen and processors are still picking up the pieces. And they're doing it with very little help from the federal 
government.

"There's not a damn thing that's going to put money in any fisherman's pockets, not a damned thing," George Barisch, president of the Louisiana's United Commercial Fishermen's Association, said in the September issue of National Fisher­man magazine.

Processors aren't any better off. Sanford Horn, a processor in Mis­sissippi, told National Fisherman , "It's slow. We are trying to rebuild without hiring anybody. We aren't waiting for any help, either. We always did it ourselves."

Although the U.S. Senate passed a bill earmarking $1.1 billion in aid for the Gulf seafood industry, a final version included only $128 million for all three Gulf states. And that money had to be spent on things like habitat restoration and monitoring fish stocks, neither of which will provide any short-term relief to the industry. Even that money has yet to make its way out of Washington, due to red tape and bureaucratic bungling.

Current estimates are that seafood production from the impacted states will be off about 50 percent from pre-hurricane levels. Many boats that were driven inland by the huge storm surge are still high and dry. And it could be a long time before they start fishing again. The fishermen who own the boats, many of whom had no insurance, lack the money to get their boats back on the water.

The Louisiana oyster industry, the largest in the country until last August, estimates its production will be off by about half, as oyster reefs were smothered in mud. Mike Voisin, chairman of the Louisiana Oyster Task Force, says oyster growers don't have any money to restore their reefs.

Still, there are a few people in the industry who are recovering, some quite nicely. The fortunate oystermen who escaped significant damage are enjoying a sharp rise in oyster prices. Shrimpers who have been able to fish report very good catches, something they call the "Bubba Gump Bounce," a reference to bumper post-hurricane shrimp catches seen in the movie "Forrest Gump."

Although ex-vessel prices remain near record-low levels and fuel prices continue to reach record highs, shrimpers say the big hauls make fishing worthwhile.

Fewer shrimp nets in the water (the current shrimping effort is the lowest since the mid 1960s) is good news for beleaguered red snapper stocks, which suffer from a high bycatch of juvenile snapper by shrimp boats. Snapper fishermen are hopeful that the reduced shrimping effort will keep fishery managers from making more draconian cuts in overfished snapper stocks.

So what will the Gulf industry look like two years after the devastation? Probably a lot like it does now. Given the federal government's inability to accurately assess the damage, it is unlikely that enough money will flow to fishermen and processors to resuscitate dead or dying businesses.

On the other hand, the fishermen and processors who survived should do all right. With so few fishermen on the water, there's a lot more fish and shrimp to spread around among the remaining boats and plants.

The irony in the post-hurricane Gulf era is that the less the industry rebuilds, the more profitable it will likely be.

 

Contributing Editor Peter Redmayne lives in Seattle

 

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