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Hurricane Ida Has Hobbled Louisiana's Multi-Billion Dollar Fishing Industry


When Hurricane Ida came ashore almost two weeks ago, most of Louisiana's commercial fishermen were right in the way. The storm thrashed boats, docks and whole towns essential to the shrimping industry. And as NPR's Frank Morris reports, that was just the most recent in a long series of powerful blows.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Louisiana Highway 1 runs all the way across the state. The southeast end of it hugs Bayou Lafourche - normally a safe harbor for shrimp boats that Hurricane Ida turned upside down.

PATRICK DANOS: You're looking at a sunk boat right here, a cabin of the boat right there, a sunk boat right there. Yeah. It's full of them. By far the worst I've ever seen.

MORRIS: Patrick Danos works on a dock that serves these shrimp boats, and he says that at least a hundred in this part of Louisiana are sunk or wrecked on land.

DANOS: A boat smashed up right here. Another boat is halfway on land that sunk. Another sunk boat right here. So people like that, they might never get their boats back. You know what I'm saying?

MORRIS: Most of these boats are their own little enterprises, hauling shrimp out of the gulf and spreading the proceeds around the local economy. Thomas Hymel with Louisiana State University says that when one of these boats sink, a small business goes under.

THOMAS HYMEL: Most commercial fishing vessels in Louisiana are not insured. There is no insurance because you can't afford it. So they just take their chances.

MORRIS: Lately, they've just been taking their lumps. Last year, a record three hurricanes and two tropical storms battered the 3,000 commercial fishermen working off the waters off Louisiana. Normally, this is the most productive fishery in the continental United States - a $2.5 billion industry. But Ida crashed at all.

HYMEL: This was the bad one. This was the one that shuts down all of the shrimp docks. It shuts down the, you know, processing plants that are down there. Our supply chain in this industry has just been exploded.

MORRIS: That means that even seaworthy vessels can't buy the supplies they need. The smaller ones have to have ice, lots of ice, to keep their catch fresh. They need fuel, and they need a place to sell the shrimp they haul in. All that's down. And some of it's just concrete rubble and wadded up steel, as Patrick Danos points out.

DANOS: This right here was a shrimp company. This was a shrimp factory right here. Look, the Seafood Shed - nothing left, flat.

MORRIS: I mean, there is something left - the iron-willed people who work this industry.

DEAN BLANCHARD: My name's Dean Blanchard, and I buy and sell shrimp out of Grand Isle, La.

MORRIS: It's an expansive operation that took a direct hit from Ida.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hey, where Doc (ph) went? Getting the truck?

MORRIS: Blanchard is getting a big industrial generator delivered. It'll likely take weeks to hook this remote barrier island back up to the grid. But Blanchard says he'll soon be back in business, at a steep cost.

BLANCHARD: Oh, yeah, yeah. We got a mess. We got a mess. About 750,000 I got figured so far. And every time - every day I look, it's a little bit more. It's going to be a million dollars by the time I pay for everything out of my pocket.

MORRIS: Fortunately for Blanchard, he's got a pretty deep pocket. Many in this industry don't. Because as storms battered production last year, a raging pandemic pummeled demand.

JIM GOSSEN: All the money stopped, so there's no money.

MORRIS: Jim Gossen with the Gulf Seafood Foundation says that much of the catch here goes to restaurants. They suffered during the pandemic, and since Ida, many in New Orleans are shuttered once again.

GOSSEN: Their market has really suffered. So you throw this in the mix and - pretty steep mountain to climb.

MORRIS: Some shrimpers are already making plans to leave. Chieu Tran, originally from Vietnam, is a deckhand on a large trawler that sunk in the storm. Ida took the roof off his home, too, so he's got to fix that. Then he's moving on to fish elsewhere.

CHIEU TRAN: Now, after about maybe one week, I done my house (ph). I go to Alabama.

MORRIS: Others here have roots that are just too deep to move.

GERALD GRIFFIN: My grandfather owned a net shop. And then my dad made nets. And then I made nets.

MORRIS: Gerald Griffin stands in the wreckage of a commercial fishing net shop in Golden Meadow, La., as water pours in. Wet nets and big spools of rope to make them hang in the dim ambient light. Griffin expects this whole hurricane-mangled village to be off the grid for a month. Almost everyone's got storm damage, but few have income until the fishing is back. And yet he's smiling.

GRIFFIN: You just keep going (laughter). Just keep working and keep working. That's the one thing about us down here. We're survivors. We know how to survive off the land. So it's easy for us. Just get back on your feet and you go again.

MORRIS: Major storms can be rejuvenating. Dean Blanchard says the shrimp always come back stronger after a hurricane. Others see an opportunity to build safer harbors, so storms like Ida won't wreck as many boats. But for some shrimpers, it may be too little, too late.

Frank Morris, NPR News, Grand Isle, La.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Morris has supervised the reporters in KCUR's newsroom since 1999. In addition to his managerial duties, Morris files regularly with National Public Radio. He’s covered everything from tornadoes to tax law for the network, in stories spanning eight states. His work has won dozens of awards, including four national Public Radio News Directors awards (PRNDIs) and several regional Edward R. Murrow awards. In 2012 he was honored to be named "Journalist of the Year" by the Heart of America Press Club.