Gulf Coast fisheries rebound after storms

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita sank or damaged 5,000 boats, but crews are making record hauls.

When hurricanes Katrina and Rita blew through the bayous, putting shrimp boats up on land and wrecking 90 percent of the icemaking and peeling machinery, they sent a shudder through the country's biggest shrimp fishery.

But surviving shrimpers, oystermen, and crabbers are learning a key lesson, one foreseen in a Hollywood movie made 12 years ago: The storms have rejuvenated fish stocks, leading to record catches.

"You saw 'Forrest Gump,' well, it's a reality," says Steve Murawski, a senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Silver Spring, Md. The 1994 Oscar winner for Best Picture, he says, offered a near-perfect prediction of the storms' aftermath, including wrecked boats - and a booming fishery.

Just as the storm surges purged contaminants from the bayous, they did the same to the fishing fleet. With fewer boats on the water, crews that once caught 300 pounds a day are catching 600. Shrimp are especially plentiful during a full moon. And despite the soup of petrochemicals that spilled out of New Orleans, government agencies have said Gulf seafood is safe to eat.

"The dirty little secret is that this has been good for the fishermen," says Port Sulphur, La., oysterman Terry Shelley, returning from a check on an oyster bed where the bivalves are "plumping up real nice.... If you can stay on, it's going to be good."

For many, it's hard to stay on in a region still recovering from overwhelming devastation. Shrimp boats remain on land, docks are in pieces, pilings are twisted every which way, and critical processing equipment has been ripped apart by flood and wind.

With some 5,000 boats sunk or damaged, perhaps 20 percent of the fishing fleet is at work on the water.

For people, like brokers, who rely on a large total catch, it's not a happy sight, especially for an industry that, pre-Katrina, was slowly diminishing due to low prices from foreign competition and rising diesel costs. "Everything is very bad; the worm is turning," says Scott Ancar, an oyster wholesaler on the docks of Port Sulphur.

If nothing else, the storms leveled the playing field, eased fishing pressure and rapidly improved the fishery. And they prompted NOAA, as well as state and local agencies, to study how many shrimp vessels the Gulf can sustain. Some see the hurricanes as nature's own fisheries policy.

"In a very practical way, this shows that this isn't a theoretical model being pushed around, that with animals with short life cycles like shrimp you can reap benefits ... almost immediately" of having fewer fisherman on the water, says Mr. Murawski.

To maintain this new status quo of fewer fishermen and more fish, federal regulators are considering a $240 million boat buyout and a freeze on offshore permits.

But regardless of federal policy, there's an acknowledgment here that, despite the determination of those who brave the sea for a living, the storms may have permanently altered the "Shrimp Coast."

"Providing we don't get kicked in the teeth again, it'll be a slow, hard job to do it, but I'm sure [the fishermen] will come back," says Tommy Bush Jr., a shrimp broker in Metairie, La. "But it won't be near what it was before for a long time. Maybe we don't need it to be like it was before."

Indeed, some have converted their broad-decked oyster boats for salvage work, plucking thousands of wrecked watercraft from the bayous. Others have launched new careers altogether. "One of my friends quit crabbing and is now hanging electric wire," says David Lavergne, an economist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries in Baton Rouge, La.

But many can't get the salt spray and the feeling of pulling crab-heavy pots or shrimp-laden trawls out of their system.

Doan Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American crabber, has returned even though his wife and two children remain in Minnesota, where they relocated after the storm. He is borrowing his father's truck, which he sleeps in each night.

Showers? "In the water," he smirks, pointing over the railing of his stout crab boat.

Salvaging his sunken boat and buying a new outboard has been a struggle, Mr. Nguyen says. As he carves up a small shark for bait, he thinks it will pay off, he says. He should now be able to pull in his maximum of 3,000 pounds of crab a day, grossing $1,500, he says. Despite looming debts, he hopes to be able to take some days "on the couch," as he says. "Fishing make you healthy, you work hard," he says, "and you eat very good."

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