When the Celebrating Stopped

by Jeremy Alford

**Wednesday, May 5, 2010
Written by Jeremy Alford
**Photo by Robin May

A landmark legislative package supporting the shrimp industry was adopted last week, but all the joy was sucked out of the milestone by a black mass of trouble in the Gulf of Mexico.

With the way things have been going during the past five years or so, you have to wonder if there's ever a good time to be a commercial shrimper...

Wednesday, May 5, 2010
Written by Jeremy Alford
Photo by Robin May

A landmark legislative package supporting the shrimp industry was adopted last week, but all the joy was sucked out of the milestone by a black mass of trouble in the Gulf of Mexico.

With the way things have been going during the past five years or so, you have to wonder if there's ever a good time to be a commercial shrimper...

Two hurricanes in 2005 followed by two more in 2008 decimated the industry's infrastructure, and federal aid is still trickling in to help fishermen and processors rebound. During this time, the industry also sought relief against cheap, foreign imports. The feds responded, but the tariff program has not lived up to expectations.

A glimmer of hope surfaced last week, however, when lawmakers and Gov. Bobby Jindal coalesced behind an unprecedented package of bills that would create a special certification program for wild-caught shrimp and guarantee annual funding for the initiative. It was an unmistakable feel-good moment, that morning of Wednesday, April 28, just hours before everything would change.

By the time Louisiana's shrimpers awoke the next morning, the Coast Guard had already alerted the media that the explosion of BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig was expected to leak five times as much crude into the Gulf as originally forecasted. Obviously, no good would come from the news, and the human deaths associated with the explosion only underscored the tragedy and its wide-reaching implications.

But, shrimpers being shrimpers, they fought on and requested that the state immediately open up some areas for fishing before any possible pollution could occur. The state obliged, but the special season has since been closed. The inshore shrimp season typically opens in mid-May, and major shrimp and oyster harvesting areas are located in the eastern part of Louisiana near the expanding oil slick radius.

The American Shrimp Processors Association also put its New Orleans counsel, Edward Hayes of Leake & Anderson, on notice to monitor the situation. Hayes says if the oil slick migrates inland to shallower depths where crabs and shrimp spawn, and where major oyster beds reside, the industry faces potentially catastrophic damage at a time of unprecedented vulnerability.
Hayes says he has already been approached by numerous seafood harvesters and producers to pursue potential claims. "The last thing we want to do is inflame a devastating situation, but we have been fighting to protect the domestic shrimp industry for years, and it is our responsibility to make sure that shrimp and all local seafood industries survive this disaster and obtain compensation if owed," he says.

Meanwhile two fishermen, Acy J. Cooper Jr. of Venice and Ronnie Louis Anderson of Montegut, have started a class action suit in New Orleans federal court and are seeking $5 million in damages.

The planned certification program and the regular session will likewise march on. Last week, the House Natural Resources Committee endorsed a legislative package, which makes permanent a temporary task force to handle policy issues, creates a certification program to enhance marketing opportunities and establishes a long-term source of funding to underwrite the entire initiative.

The Louisiana Shrimp Task Force was created last year by Jindal after hundreds of shrimpers and processors took to the steps of the state Capitol during a brief strike to raise awareness about plummeting prices. House Bill 875 by Rep. Joe Harrison, D-Napoleonville, would place the task force into state law and anchor it within the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. "We have been somewhat complacent in stabilizing that market and helping it compete," Harrison says. "We need to step up to the plate."

While the debate over the bill was relatively quick, shrimper Ronnie Anderson of Houma, a member of the task force, did force a change to the proposed membership to provide for a more balanced representation of interests. In the end, the panel agreed on four harvesters, three processors, one dock owner appointed by the governor and one appointee from WLF. "This count is going to force us to compromise and work together," Anderson says.

Randy Pausina, assistant secretary of WLF, says the group is being modeled after the Louisiana Oyster Task Force, which often brings ideas to the Legislature and speaks chiefly with one, unified voice.  "Over the years that system has worked well," Pausina says.

One of the first official recommendations from the Shrimp Task Force can be found in Harrison's House Bill 890, which calls for the development of a certification program for Louisiana wild-caught shrimp and other seafood. Alaska and many other coastal states already have similar seafood programs on their books, and supporters here hope the Louisiana program will create new marketing strategies for fishermen and processors.

As originally proposed last year, it's a four-phase, voluntary program that would essentially certify the authenticity of Louisiana shrimp through the efforts of harvesters and processors. Major seafood buyers nationwide have become increasingly interested in certified quality-control products - in this case, quality control means that every stop a wild-caught shrimp makes from being pulled out the water to being placed on the consumer's plate would be accounted for in great detail.

Under Harrison's bill, the lead agency would be the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, but there would be several other players as well, like the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, LSU and "any other state or federal agency deemed appropriate."

Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain says his department is already inspecting items like meat, poultry and eggs, so shrimp wouldn't be a stretch.

The program, however, is not a mandate, Harrison adds. "This is a voluntary program," he says. "This is not something that we're going to go out there and force some fishermen to participate in. I think they'll want to participate in this, though. It's a major step forward."

House Bill 1346, the final measure in the package, establishes a source of funding for the program. The bill, authored by House Natural Resources Chairman Gordon Dove, R-Houma, and supported by the governor, would allow the use of 10 percent of the annual deposits made to the Artificial Reef Development Fund to create and maintain the certification program. Dove says that amount should be around $800,000 annually or more. The Louisiana Artificial Reef Program was established in 1986 to take advantage of obsolete oil and gas platforms as possible habitats. It's a voluntary program, and it reaps the benefits of the savings that energy companies rack up by not having to dismantle and demolish the rig. The governor believes there's enough money in the program to assist the shrimping industry.

Jody Montelaro, Jindal's policy adviser, says the money could be used for grants or loans to help processors and fishermen become certified. That could mean refrigeration for a boat or other equipment, in addition to providing cash for administration of the program. "Wildlife and Fisheries will have to come up with rulemaking," he says.

All three bills are now pending action on the House floor, and there's no doubt the oil spill will be brought up during debate this week. Rep. Jerry Gisclair, D-Larose, a member of the House Natural Resources Committee, says he embraces the proposed shrimp package "with my heart" and hopes it can still have an impact on an industry that continues to face turbulent waters. "This is one of the best moves we can make to save an endangered lifestyle," he says.

Jeremy Alford can be reached at [email protected]