When Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas, many thought they were witnessing the â€œill wind that blows nobody good.â€ Property damage will be in the billions and the toll in human suffering can never be measured. How could a silver lining be found in this dark summer of tragedy for anyone in the hurricane-struck areas, much less the shrimping industry?
When Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas, many thought they were witnessing the “ill wind that blows nobody good.” Property damage will be in the billions and the toll in human suffering can never be measured. How could a silver lining be found in this dark summer of tragedy for anyone in the hurricane-struck areas, much less the shrimping industry?
Already reeling from imports of cheap shrimp, rising fuel costs, the “dead zone” in the Gulf, and serious by catch and over fishing issues, the industry suffered hurricane damage to boats and processing plants. Breeding areas are polluted and a NOAA research vessel is currently testing to see if shrimp caught from the Gulf area is even safe to eat. The state of Louisiana has a shocking internet advisory on contaminants that was available prior to the hurricane with its uncontrolled release of more chemicals, sewage and other dangerous runoff. The advisory states that “in a few Louisiana waters, fish and shellfish have chemical contamination in amounts that may be harmful to your health if you were to eat too much over a long period of time.”
So where is any silver lining for a 20th century industry struggling against great odds? It is suggested by a term used by U. S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez after Katrina hit Louisiana. He announced the formal determination of a “fishery failure” in the Gulf of Mexico and made federal relief funds available through the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act to restore fisheries, assist fishing communities and provide direct assistance to fishermen. Herein lies a silver lining and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the government, the shrimp industry, recreational fishermen and taxpayers.
It is no secret that shrimp fishing has evolved into a less than desirable career and certainly much less lucrative than in years past. The state of Texas has taken action to reduce its shrimp fleet by buying out shrimping licenses and setting up appropriate restrictions and closures to deal with over fishing and by catch of recreational fish. According to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the total economic impact of Texas commercial shrimping is reported at $300 million while the economic impact of recreational saltwater angling is $1.3 billion!
NOAA now has a rare opportunity to help struggling shrimp fishermen while shoring up marine resources. Instead of using the Magnuson-Stevens millions to buy new shrimp boats, why not re-train fishermen and allow them to find jobs that would offer security for them and their families? Monies earmarked to translate information into Vietnamese could be used to teach them how to speak English so they can enter the job force in other fields and be competitive.
Even endangered sea turtles would benefit from a reduction of the shrimp fleet in the Gulf of Mexico. Some shrimp fishermen say that storm debris backs up inside the Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) and prevents shrimp from piling up in the bag. The TED was designed to allow sea turtles to escape from trawls, but as a result of the storms, Dr. William Hogarth, Assistant Administrator for NOAA Fisheries, announced the suspension of the use of TEDs in some areas of the Gulf. He expects shrimp boat captains to use a 55 minute tow so that trapped turtles can be released before they drown. Since the Coast Guard is working overtime doing hurricane rescue, law enforcement will be scant and the 55 minute tow is virtually unenforceable.
NOAA Fisheries and the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council have a rare chance to do a big favor for bankrupt shrimp fishermen. Give them an option to change their vocations and then re-train them to enter other fields. Cutting the number of shrimp boats in the Gulf of Mexico would reduce by catch and over fishing and help save sea turtles from extinction. Now is the time.
Carole H. Allen is the Gulf Office Director of Sea Turtle Restoration Project-TEXAS located in Houston, Texas.