Business Cover

At Bay

by Mary Tutwiler

Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Written by Mary Tutwiler

For now, Vermilion Bay is clear of oil, and the Cypremort Point shrimp season is in full swing.

Morning comes early in midsummer. Five o'clock on June 15 and the sun is beginning to rise over the long vista of sugar cane fields in St. Mary Parish on the way to Cypremort Point. The round disk of the sun is as red as a sliced beet, gorgeous against the pink and gold eastern sky...
Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Written by Mary Tutwiler

For now, Vermilion Bay is clear of oil, and the Cypremort Point shrimp season is in full swing.

Morning comes early in midsummer. Five o'clock on June 15 and the sun is beginning to rise over the long vista of sugar cane fields in St. Mary Parish on the way to Cypremort Point. The round disk of the sun is as red as a sliced beet, gorgeous against the pink and gold eastern sky.

But that's not the direction Rodney Olander faces. He's looking west, where Marsh Island rises like a floating cloud on the surface of Vermilion Bay. The motor of his 36-foot skiff throbs with a steady beat, not unlike the beat of his heart, while he prepares for another day of shrimping. Another day is what he asks for, each day, as he tries not to think about the threat of oil from the Deepwater Horizon riding in on the tide, fouling the waters of Vermilion Bay, where his family has earned its livelihood for four generations.

What would he do if the oil comes in? "I have no idea," says Rodney. "If the oil comes here and we're shut down, I really don't know what we're going to do. It's a hard pill to swallow if you can't get out on the water."

Tall and lanky in a red T-shirt and jean shorts, his long legs stuck in white shrimp boots with their tops turned down, Rodney, 48, rests his arm lightly on the boat's wheel, steering the skiff without thinking, as if the boat itself knows exactly where it is going.

"There's no oil in the bay," he says, and adds after a long moment, "yet." He goes on. "If we get a storm in the Gulf, especially if it's a high water storm, from the west..." the pause lengthens out and remains unfinished, as if speaking the unspeakable will make it come true. Rodney guns the throttle, and we pick up speed, heading toward Marsh Island.

This year has been a crazy season for Louisiana's shrimpers. With the uncertainty of the direction of the gigantic oil spill, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries launched the shrimping season in April - about two weeks before the usual May 1 opening in the western waters of Louisiana. April is the time when shrimpers, after a winter off the water, ready their boats for opening day.

Rodney Olander scoops up a mix of white and brown shrimp,
caught in mid-June with an amazing bounty of marine
life (including blue crabs above) from still oil-free
Vermilion Bay.

The early, emergency opening caught many of them off guard, and they had to scramble to finish fixing motors, repairing nets and getting everything ship shape to begin shrimping. Over the course of the past two months, shrimping grounds have closed and opened with little to no notice to those working the waters. Every report of oil has to be checked out, and the state has chosen precautionary closings to assure the safety of seafood on the market. For shrimpers, who need to load up on fuel and ice in advance of a trip, the emergency closures have cost them time and money. This comes on the heels of years of trouble for the state's fishermen.

The last five years have been devastating for Louisiana's shrimp fleet. Four major hurricanes, Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike, destroyed boats and harbors, taxing the resolve of shrimpers. The natural disasters were compounded by economic forces working against them - cheap imported shrimp, high diesel prices and low prices at the shrimp docks for fresh product. Last year, dockside, shrimp prices were reported to be a paltry 80 cents a pound for all sizes, from jumbo 15-20s to small 40-50 peelers, causing shrimpers to suspect price fixing.

Tensions came to a head in August 2009, when the shrimpers had a showdown with state lawmakers. Hundreds of fishermen marched on the Capitol and staged a brief strike. The result was the promise of the creation of a Shrimp Task Force, mirroring the state's Oyster Task Force, as well as a seafood inspection program for quality control and the development of branding and marketing for Louisiana wild caught shrimp. In the recently wrapped regular session, lawmakers approved creation of the program, which will get $800,000 in annual funding.

Last fall, says Rodney, was his worst season ever. But the shrimpers were optimistic that this was going to be their year. "Shrimp prices are up, and the imports are down," he says. "This was the year everybody was waiting for to get back on their feet."

Then the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform exploded and Louisiana's shrimping grounds were polluted. That is, except for the western reaches of the state. Ironically, the spill has been good for those shrimpers who have good water to fish. "With the oil spill, the price is higher than it has been in 20 years," says Rodney. "We're finally getting an honest amount for our shrimp."

In mid-June, shrimpers were selling large 21-25 shrimp for between $2.80 to $3 a pound at shrimp docks. Retail customers can expect to pay about $3.50 a pound for large shrimp direct from the dock.

"That's an excellent price," says Rodney.

It's 6:15 a.m. He slows the engines, pulls on the levers that set the winches groaning into motion, and drops the metal arms, like wings, horizontally out over the water. The long nets float on the surface for a moment, then sink below the green waters of Vermilion Bay. The whole process takes about two minutes to complete. Rodney smiles for the first time this morning, his whole body language relaxing. "And we're shrimping," he says.

Rodney Olander is the eighth of 10 children. His grandfather, Andy Olander, an itinerant oysterman, sailed his oyster schooner into Louisiana waters in 1929, as the stock market crashed. For the next two years the family lived on the 80-foot schooner while Andy peddled oysters in Delcambre and Abbeville.

In 1932, Andy heard that there was good, high land to build a homestead on Weeks Island. He hitched a ride for his schooner on the back of the dredge that was digging the Intracoastal Canal. For about three months the dredge crept forward, the oyster boat tied to the back, barefoot kids fishing over the gunwales. When the dredge passed Weeks Island, the Olanders slipped the knot on the barge and docked at the newly carved canal bank, where they built a house.

Andy began shrimping Vermilion Bay. His 4-year-old son, Leo, Rodney's father, was on board.

I interviewed Leo Olander 14 years ago, when he was 68, still sporting a full head of black hair, and still shrimping, with his second wife, Diana.

"The first net I ever put in the water was under sail," Leo told me. "We would adjust the sails to get the speed right for dragging the doors. [The doors are solid wooden skids that keep the mouth of the net open as it skims the bottom, entrapping shrimp.] We could tell the speed by the bubbles coming up," Leo said, describing shrimping on a sailboat in the early 1930s.

"We'd make a drag, 15-20 minutes. There was such an abundance of shrimp! You'd catch the caboose [a rope at the end of the net with a jug on it] and pull it up alongside the front of the boat. We had to dip out the shrimp.

We'd come in with about 1,000 pounds of shrimp in the 1930s. A #3 washtub holds about 100 pounds of shrimp, leveled off. We had to snow cone it, pour a mound of about 20 pounds more of shrimp on top. We sold that for $3 per tub in 1932."

By the 1940s the Olander family moved to Cypremort Point. Leo married Hazel LeBlanc and raised 10 children, Carolyn, Russell and Roland (twins), William, Brenda, Maxine, Thomas, Rodney, Christine and Troy.
Of those siblings, all but one, Troy, is in the shrimping business. William drowned in an accident. A couple of uncles, a half a dozen nephews and some cousins round out the Olander shrimping empire. One nephew, Michael Olander, has taken over management of the Cypremort Point institution, the Bayview, a convenience store, fuel dock and bar at the end of the world.

Today, Russell is on board the Capt. William, and a nephew, Leo, "named for Pop," says Rodney, captains his own boat, the Miss Ruby. Rodney chats with both of them on the VHF radio.

Russell pulls his drag close to the bank at Marsh Island. Leo is off toward Southwest Pass. "We've been out here so long with the same group of fishermen you can pretty much tell if they're catching," says Russell.

Michael Olander runs Cypremort Point's Bayview;
Rodney Olander (above) visits with a passing boat, in the
area for the oil spill cleanup effort.

Orange boom is laid at the mouths of all the little bayous leading into Marsh Island. D & L Salvage boats, contracted by BP, buzz back and forth, checking that the boom remains in place. "They've been busy," says Rodney. "Marsh Island is a big estuary for us. If you get oil in there..." again, the unthinkable remains unexpressed.

Rodney turns the boat 180 degrees for another pass. The air fills with a sweet fruity smell. "That's a school of fish," he says. "They smell like watermelon."

At 7:15 a.m., after an hour's drag, Rodney raises the arms, and the nets, now fat bags studded with tiny silver shad, swing onboard. He slips the knots that tie them closed, and an amazing bounty of marine life tumbles onto the deck. Blue crabs scramble everywhere, so many it's nearly impossible to walk. Sheepshead and drum flop on the deck before we flip them over the side, hardheads and stingray threaten with their stingers, small trout, perch, flounder and croakers wiggle in the mix of white and brown shrimp. It's fascinating, this glimpse of what lives in the 12 feet of water below the decks of the Big Rod, Olander's skiff.

With a plastic tool that looks like a windshield washer we triage - big white shrimp into a basket, bycatch (meaning everything else unless we're collecting bull crabs for a boil or fish 16 inches or better) back over the side. It takes about half an hour to collect about 40 pounds of large shrimp; meanwhile the nets have been dropped and the Big Rod is trolling all the while.

Ordinarily, Rodney shrimps by himself, and the boat can be a handful as he simultaneously steers, raises his nets, picks shrimp and keeps the decks clean.

Today, with two deckhands, he has time during drags to talk.

"I have one son, a daughter and stepdaughter," he says. His two daughters are married to men who work in the oil industry. His son, Matt, would like to fish, but Rodney says he won't let him. Instead, Matt works security at the casino in Charenton.

"Our state fishing fleet is shrinking. I don't see the future in shrimping. If something drastic doesn't change, it's a dying industry. The oil spill might be the final nail in the coffin."

Russell and Barbara weigh the day's catch of shrimp.

Rodney is clearly torn between pride in what he knows and loves, and what he thinks might be a more stable life.
"I've been shrimping for 30 years, since before I graduated from high school. It's what I do. When you're raised this way...when I was small, my daddy used to take me out. Then I quit for a year. I sold my boat. I wish when I got out of high school I'd had a trade. By now, I'd have a 401K, retirement. Then I bought this boat, three years ago. I worked a lot of years to get a boat this nice."

At the same time, he's delighted to take his two 5-year-old grandchildren shrimping. "I'm going to bring them out next week," he says. "They can see what Papa does."

The next drag produces about 25 pounds of large white shrimp.

"The first drag of the day is always the best," says Rodney, "then it's all downhil0l."

By 3 in the afternoon, he decides to head into the Point. But on the way, he talks to Russell, who is dragging the area right in front of the Point, called The Cove.

"They're catching shrimp right there," he says, almost apologetically, as he decides to drop his nets for one more pass.

Most of the last drag is a mixture of shad and small brown shrimp called "brownies" by the shrimpers. In the eastern part of the state, spring is brown shrimp season, but here in Vermilion Bay, the brown shrimp don't grow much beyond a 60 count, too small to sell to local buyers.

"In the fall, when the water is cleaner and more salty, sometimes what's in the nets is all shrimp," says Russell. He cleans his decks, shakes out his nets, and with what looks like a regretful nod, decides to head in. "If we have a fall," he adds.

At the dock, he pulls up and off-loads his shrimp at Vermilion Bay Seafood, run by his sister Carolyn. All the Olanders sell their shrimp to their eldest sister, and there's some ribbing about who brings in the best looking haul.
"Are you sure they're 21-25s?" Rodney complains. "I think they're 16-20s." (Jumbo shrimp, which fetch a higher price.)

"You should get Thomas to show you what a 16-20 is," Carolyn responds.

In all, Rodney has brought in 160 pounds of large shrimp, worth $2.80 a pound to him, retailing for $3.75 at the Vermilion Bay Seafood dock. They'll be gone by the end of the day; fresh shrimp are in demand, and the locals know that Cypremort Point shrimp are caught the day they are sold.

Rodney packs a basket of crabs he caught to take home. Tonight is his son's birthday. "He has to have crabs," Rodney says.

Tomorrow, if the winds and tides hold the oil out of the bay, he and his brothers will be back out on the water.

"This isn't just a living," says Rodney, "shrimping is a heritage."