BAYOU CADDY, Miss. – The irony of what is happening in the post-Katrina fishing industry along the Gulf Coast is as twisted as the steel in the ruins of the marina here.
She took it all, the killer hurricane did, boats and docks and gear, cars and trucks and homes. Rough and ready men and women who pulled their living from the sea lost everything to it. But Katrina’s awful churning of the fishing grounds appears to have returned a bounty of seafood to which government inspectors have given a clean bill of health.
Be that as it may, say commercial and charter fishermen from Galveston to Pensacola and beyond, it won’t do most of them a bit of good unless and until they get massive government assistance to find, repair and replace boats, clean out waterways and harbors and restore docks, fuel pumps, ice houses and processing facilities.
The federal government has declared a “resource disaster” for the gulf fishery and says the industry, which harvests an estimated $700 million a year in finfish, shrimp, oysters and crabs, took a billion-dollar-plus hit, but so far has offered no direct aid.
“I feel like the effort is really klutzy,” says crabber Bob Metz, 63. “I’ve been dealing with the SBA for over a hundred days and FEMA too. … I think the scale of this disaster has taken everybody by surprise and the government just wasn’t prepared.”
Metz is one of a handful of fishermen scrambling to get back in business along the canals and estuaries of Bayou Caddy, once home to a thriving marina with a huge dry boat storage facility, ice house and fuel station. Now, only a mushroom-shaped water tower is left standing to guard a forlorn debris field of broken boats, gangways, tires, crab traps and rats’ nests of rope and netting. The winter wind blows cold through the marshes at the mouth of the bayou, across three-ton tank supports tumbled to the ground like dominoes, and plays a lonely clinking of line and tackle against boom and mast.
Metz, who has been catching, retailing and wholesaling crabs for more than 20 years from a residential and business compound at water’s edge, lost his three-bedroom home, a large office, cold-storage units and three boats to Katrina. Slowly, he is trying to put his business back together, borrowing $50,000 to replace his boats and equipment and selling crabs from a refrigerated truck parked next to his FEMA trailer on his storm-scoured lot.
Excellent crab catch
Shortly after the storm, the crabbing couldn’t have been better, Metz says. Katrina stirred the pot in some way that brought “way more crabs than we’re used to catching.” A hundred traps yielded 600 to 700 pounds of the blue Mississippi soft-shells, whose Latin name Callinectes sapidus means “savory, beautiful swimmer.” While his retail business is weak because travel trailers and other temporary living quarters have little room for storing crabs, the wholesale demand has been good and Metz expects the price to rise to $2 a pound as the year progresses.
Next door to Metz, oysterman Randy Tomasich, 37, also lost his home, but he saved his 48-foot boat by sailing it upstream. Still, it was pushed 30 feet ashore by Katrina’s surge. Since the storm, Tomasich hasn’t felt much like working his oyster dredges because he has been faring well in the reconstruction business, using the grab bag of welding, carpentry and other skills that he acquired in 25 years as a fisherman.
Still, it’s just a matter of time before Tomasich returns to the water. Mississippi has closed its oyster grounds to let them rebuild after Katrina, but some oystermen are working Louisiana waters, where they are pulling 150 sacks a day. Even in Mississippi, which most commercial oystermen eschew because of its 15-sack daily limit, “as far as I’m concerned, the oysters are good now,” Tomasich says. “I don’t know why they’re not letting us get them.”
On the bayou’s main arm, Trinh Huynh and Hong Tran have a lot of nets to mend aboard their 65-foot shrimp trawler, the Dustin Randy. Since the storm, they have been snagging everything from trees to cars along with the shrimp. More than 25 years after coming to the United States from their native Vietnam, the couple had built a business that was providing them with a nice house in Waveland and college tuition for two of their four children. “One day, we all gone,” Hong says, her fingers flying among the green netting. “One day, everything gone.”
Trinh rode out Katrina aboard his steel vessel, winding up well inland and 400 feet away from the bayou, an experience to which he says “not again.” He is thankful for help from the Coast Guard in getting the Dustin Randy back in the water, but puzzled as to why more than $13,000 worth of fuel had to be removed from it and not replaced.
While post-Katrina shrimping was good in places along the coast, Trinh and Hong’s business is now tremendously complicated by having to travel 10 hours for fuel and ice. They are making some money selling their catch dockside, but their entire customer count on one recent afternoon was two visiting police officers.
'I don't know'
Living in a FEMA trailer, the family doesn’t plan to give up, but asked about his hopes for the future of his own business and his whole industry, Trinh draws deeply on his Marlboro and says simply, “I don’t know.”
Oysterman Roger Ladner stands in front of My Ladies, one of his two fishing vessels left stranded in the trees after Hurricane Katrina's flood waters receded. Click 'play' to hear Ladner's son, Michael Beech, talk about their predicament. (John Brecher / MSNBC.com)
Oystermen Michael Beech and his dad Roger Ladner can only be envious of fishermen who have gotten back in the water. Their 43-foot My Ladies and 58-foot Catherine were left high and dry up the Jourdan River in Kiln, where they were taken in a bid to dodge Katrina. Now hundreds of yards from the water and on private property, the boats are not a high priority as the Coast Guard works to clear the area’s waterways.
“They said it could be a while before the put them back in the water or they could never put them back in the water,” Beech says, surveying the vessels, which wound up in a small pecan grove amid a pile of pine logs from a nearby sawmill.
Although Beech has years of experience working for others, the men had only recently gotten into the fishing business for themselves after Ladner cashed in his 401(k) to buy the boats. They were doing well until Katrina hit. “I’d be in Louisiana working right now, making 300 sacks every two days,” Beech says, a haul that would bring $6,000.
The men are investigating private options to get their boats running again, expecting to pay $3,000 or more. “Has anyone told you what B-O-A-T means?” asks Ladner. “Break out another thou.”
The charter fishing industry also suffered mightily. Businessmen who didn’t lose their boats lost their visitor base and the infrastructure that supported their operations, says Capt. John Lewis, who was taking a hiatus from running his “Speck” Tacular charter boat out of Bay St. Louis when Katrina hit.
Lots of 'specks'
But Lewis says the post-Katrina fishing for the speckled trout that are the namesake of his boat and the “No. 1 game fish along the Gulf Coast” is so good that he is thinking about returning to the business. On recent outings, the “specks,” a saltwater version of rainbow trout “were plentiful and they were hungry,” Lewis said.
An industry group, the National Association of Charter Boat Operators, says about half the charter vessels in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana were either lost or severely damaged by the storm. By mid-December, charter boat skippers had lost nearly 18,000 trips, a direct loss of nearly $25 million, a NACO spokesman told a congressional panel last month.
At that same hearing, before the House Resources Subcommittee on Fisheries and Oceans, a host of speakers detailed the damage to both the commercial and charter industries and implored Congress to help.
“The industry is suffering as much as any industry I’ve seen,” said William Hogarth, director of the National Marine Fisheries Service, who put the cost of rebuilding at $1.2 billion.
But a few days later, when Congress approved another $29 billion in hurricane relief funds for the gulf region, there was nothing in the bill for fishermen.
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