Alaska fishermen jump to help Gulf Coast colleagues

Posted: Sunday, September 04, 2005

Hurricane Katrina dealt a serious blow to thousands of commercial fishermen in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama who have struggled in recent years to maintain the traditional seagoing life.

In Bayou Le Batre, Ala., about 60 percent of the shrimp boats are stuck in the woods, said John Williams, executive director of the Southern Shrimp Alliance.

"The town was just completely flooded," Williams said.

Needless to say, many Alaska fishermen are feeling shivers of empathy.

"It's really bad down there," said Marc Jones, a former director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation who is now co-managing an Alaska effort with Sen. Lisa Murkowski's staff to provide long-term aid to Gulf Coast fishermen.

The shrimping season in some Gulf of Mexico communities was just getting ready to start when the hurricane hit, Williams said Friday from his home in Tarpon Springs, Fla.

Despite the horrors they have faced, the fishermen of the Gulf Coast are bound to bounce back, he said.

"People are trying to write off our industry, but we will survive," Williams said.

Docks, boats, and seafood plants ranging from just south of New Orleans to Alabama have been destroyed or severely damaged, according to national news reports.

At Biloxi and Gulfport in Mississippi, "all the processing plants are gone and the boats are missing," Williams said.

The damage in Louisiana - the second-largest seafood-producing state after Alaska - could turn out to be especially significant.

Louisiana is the biggest U.S. producer of shrimp, in pounds, though nearby in Texas, shrimpers have produced a higher net value for their larger-sized specimens.

Louisiana also leads the nation in oyster production with about 126 million pounds, according to 2003 data. The hurricane's storm surge and pollution most likely knocked out oyster beds all along the eastern Louisiana and Mississippi coast, Jones said.

Williams noted that fishing communities west of New Orleans escaped relatively unscathed.

Katrina made first landfall near Empire, La., south of New Orleans. The Venice-Empire port is the second-largest seafood-producing port in the country after Alaska's Dutch Harbor, according to the most recent National Marine Fisheries Service's "state of the fisheries" report published in 2003.

So far, it's been hard to get detailed information about the status of the Gulf Coast fishing villages south of New Orleans.

The National Marine Fisheries Service is producing an assessment of the economic value of the affected fisheries next week, said Susan Buchanan, a Washington, D.C.-based agency spokeswoman.

Some early reports have trickled in, though.

Federal officials have reported that, like Bayou Le Batre, the town of Venice was completely flooded by Katrina. The levee that ringed Venice proved ineffective, according to a U.S. Geological Survey report.

Alaska fishermen have had their own share of trouble over the last 30 years, said Bill Woolf, a fisheries specialist for Sen. Murkowski, R-Alaska, who is working with Jones on the Alaska fishermen aid project.

The Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 jolted major fisheries and the Good Friday earthquake of 1964 destroyed Alaska fishing villages.

The Gulf Coast shrimpers and Alaska salmon fishermen have shared another important bond in more recent years - economic pressure from foreign exports of farmed seafood.

"Alaska fishermen are linked arm-in-arm with Gulf shrimpers on domestic seafood issues. We think it's essential to help them out," said Mark Vinsel, executive director of the United Fishermen of Alaska.

The United Fishermen of Alaska and a number of regional Alaska fishing organizations have also been working on disaster relief planning in recent days.

The human trials now take precedence over the long-term socioeconomic consequences to fishing villages, Woolf said.

Fishermen are among the victims, according to The Associated Press, which reported Friday that some Gulf shrimpers made their last stand against the hurricane aboard their boats.

Shrimpers in Biloxi told the AP that they believe about a dozen of their colleagues drowned trying to ride out the storm.

Chuck Adams, a marine economist with the University of Florida's Sea Grant program, compared the devastation in the Gulf to how the tsunami that routed Indian Ocean fishing villages late last year. "It's going to be decimating to the industry," he said.

Right now, the best thing for Alaskans to do on behalf of hurricane victims is to provide cash donations to national emergency relief efforts, Woolf said.

In the meantime, Jones is working with Alaska fishing groups and Sen. Murkowski's office to set up a nonprofit organization to aid Gulf Coast fishermen and, possibly, send cans of Alaska salmon down to hurricane victims, he said.

"Canned salmon is a popular food in that area of the country. I think they'll like it better than Army (rations)," Jones said.

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at

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