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Louisiana Seafood Businesses Struggle to Recover After Hurricane Ida

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Louisiana’s oyster farmers, crabbers, shrimpers and anglers are nothing if not adaptable, producing hundreds of tons of seafood annually. They’ve fought off a devastating oil spill, floods, changing markets and endless hurricanes just to stay in business.

Ida, though, has some wondering what might come next.

The Category 4 hurricane fractured some parts of the industry even worse than Katrina, which cost seafood businesses more than $1 billion in 2005. No one yet knows how many boats, docks and processors were lost because of Ida’s relentless, 150-mph winds. Vessels that made it to the safest harbors fared the best, yet even some of them were destroyed by the storm’s fury.

The story of Ida’s impact on Louisiana’s $2.4 billion seafood industry, which employs more than 23,000, is spread across places that outsiders struggle to even pronounce: Parishes like Plaquemines, Lafourche, and Terrebonne, cities and hamlets including Pointe-aux-Chenes, Des Allemandes and Houma. There, seafood families go back generations.

The people who make a living off the Gulf bounty that the rest of the world savors are pledging to come back provided another hurricane doesn’t wipe them out first. But there are other challenges ahead as Louisiana tries to save a vanishing coastline, an industry and a way of life, all at the same time.

The ferocious wind from Hurricane Ida tore off so much of the roof of Motivatit Seafoods, an oyster plant in Houma, that it rained inside when squalls from Hurricane Nicholas blew through two weeks later, ruining expensive processing equipment. Across a parking lot, Ida reduced a maintenance shop to a crumpled heap of metal.

Steven Voisin, who runs the 50-year-old family business founded by his late brother and father, says the buildings are to the extent of not really being able to be reused.

Oyster production already was down in Louisiana because of hurricanes and the BP oil spill of 2010, and several years of bad flooding virtually wiped out some areas where the shellfish grew, partly because a major spillway had to be opened in 2019.

Then, the pandemic hit last year and forced restaurants around the nation to close, killing demand for a product that’s best served fresh. While the company employed as many as 100 people in the past, Voisin said, the current payroll is around 20 people, some of whom will help determine how to move forward after Ida.

Voisin said he has yet to compute a dollar estimate for damage to the company, which also operates boats that harvest oysters, but it’s substantial.

Ida’s Category 4 winds flipped shrimp trawler boats on their side, bent frames and tore nets. The storm also heavily damaged rental houses that stand on stilts near marina docks. Without housing, visitors who normally buy tackle, fuel, food and beer won’t be around for a while to contribute to the community’s economy, which needs every penny it can get.

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For now, though, cleaning up the wreckage from Ida is the main job for many communities.

Mitch Jurisich’s grandparents immigrated to the United States from Croatia in the early 1900s, settling at Bayou LaChute and living in a house surrounded by peach trees, chickens and, just off the shore, oyster beds. Today, the entire homestead is covered by more than 4 feet of water, and all that remains visible of the old camp are wooden pilings around where Jurisich farms oysters near Empire, Louisiana.

A tall hill once stood where all that remains is water, and beneath the surface, big, succulent oysters growing in the warm waters of Plaquemines Parish about 60 miles southeast of New Orleans.

Ida’s heavy rains caused freshwater and sediment to flood coastal estuaries, killing the shellfish, he said. While farmers are still assessing their losses, he said, the final numbers will be bad.

Jurisich says the future of he and his brother’s company, Jurisich Oysters LLC, is far from guaranteed. Still, he has hope, he said.

“I’m not doomed until the last oyster dies,” he said. “As long as Mother Nature leaves us something to work with out there, we can bounce back.”

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