Thursday, May 29, 2008

Gone Fishin' in New Orleans

Think twice before you take a bite into a catfish po’ boy or dig into a crawfish boil. Our team has feasted on fried crab-cakes, fresh shucked oysters, and spicy shrimp these two weeks. But amidst the abundance of seafood, many people do not know about the commercial fishermen’s struggle after Hurricane Katrina.

My job at Seedco Financial is to explore the fisheries industry in context of the rebuilding process in Louisiana. I took a crash course in “trawlin'” for shrimp and laying oyster beds. Fishing is an industry that often goes under the radar – especially in the context of Hurricane Katrina and the reconstruction efforts.

Louisiana is the largest producer of shrimp, oysters, and crawfish in the United States (supplying 20% of these particular seafood), and this industry also took the hardest hit after the storm. I learned that fishermen hang their livelihood on their boats. After the storm, they lost everything. They have no means to make a living when their boat is destroyed by winds and floodwaters. Most fishermen are self-employed and do not have the capital to fix their boats or qualify for loans to rebuild. They often have very little education, and I’ve even met some older fishermen who are illiterate. It is very hard for them to get back into the waters, but at the same time, they often only know how to make a living by fishing.

I’ve been working with Seedco and the state of Louisiana on their loan/ grant program for commercial fisherman who suffered loss from Katrina. We’re providing them with low interest loans and grants to help them get back onto their feet and start fishing again. Every afternoon, I head out to Plaquemines Parish (a county outside of New Orleans) to staff Seedco’s new Fisheries Assistance Center. A short twenty minute drive takes you out to the rural Southern countryside. Fishermen come from their boats to get information and business assistance from the Center.

Today, I just came back from a town hall meeting at a local high school for fishermen. The State and the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries are hosting workshops and meetings for fishermen to learn about financial assistance and grant programs. I’ve never been in a room with so many fishermen my whole life. It’s an interesting experience to hang out and talk to hard-working, down to earth men and women who spend days or weeks out at sea. They play a vital role in Louisiana’s economy, suffered from the storm, and usually are unnoticed by the media.

As a law student from urban Los Angeles, I’ve had next to no experience with fisheries until these two weeks in New Orleans. It’s great to hang out in the rural out-skirts of New Orleans and talk to fishermen. It opened my eyes to a different industry that most law students would never be able to explore. It’s saddening to hear about the losses fishermen incurred from the storm, but at the same time, it’s fascinating to learn about their resilience and determination to get back onto the waters.

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