St. Charles Herald-Guide

Local fishing industry feels the bite

By Michael Luke - February 15, 2006

St. Charles Parish's fishing industry was hit hard post-Katrina, as local fishermen scrabbled to get up and running from hurricane damage and find new markets. The main cause of their dilemma is that the number of restaurants in New Orleans' metro area has fallen substantially.

Selling primarily catfish and crabs--with alligators and turtles as a secondary industry--many local fishermen made a living off of the waters surrounding the parish. Post-Katrina that way of life could be in jeopardy. The damage to regional fishing comes in many forms. The initial punch was Katrina's howling winds, which were undiscriminating on who or what felt the 130 mph storm.

"For instance, I got a couple a boys who are in to fishing. Neither one of those boys really suffered a lot of loss in equipment. They did get some but not a lot. Versus what happened to me, I lost all of my equipment," said Des Allemands resident and local fisherman Raymond Fonseca.

In terms of ecology, one adverse effect has been an increase of saltwater into the local fresh water system, as the catfish crop can be harmed by high saltwater content. "The ecosystem as a whole has been effected," said Biologist Marc Shexnayder for the LSUAg Center but added, "As long as we get some rainfall and they start operating Davis Pond and get some freshwater back in the system, we should be alright."

Unlike Plaquemines or St. Bernard waterfront areas, most St. Charles Parish fishermen escaped total collapse, as Katrina's devastating winds stayed to east.

But those that escaped the winds face another challenge: replacing the void in the New Orleans restaurant market. "It crunches whatever customers you may have had in the restaurant industry, because they all suffered from Katrina; it's whole different spin on it," said Fonseca.

Vice President of Communications and Research for the Louisiana Restaurant Association Tom Weatherly agrees with Fonseca, saying that out of the 3,400 restaurants that existed pre-Katrina in the New Orleans' metro area only 36 percent, approximately 1200, have reopened their doors. While New Orleans' metro area comprises Orleans, Jefferson and St. Bernard Parishes, only 26 percent has reopened within Orleans. Pre-Katrina this was the primary market for St. Charles Parish fishermen.

Fonseca wonders who and how many will come back, and how long will it take residents to return. Ultimately, he thinks there is the possibility that the New Orleans area will never be the same.

This same concern is also on the mind of Vacherie resident Tommy Breaux, who has fished in the area for thirty years, operated a seafood restaurant and currently runs B&C Seafood processing plant, as the ripple effect of Katrina continues to be felt. "The storm (will) cost me 275,000 lbs of fish a year. 'Cause the guy that used to buy a lot of this fish from me ended up losing his building in New Orleans. He had 8 or 9 ft of water in his building," said Breaux

Breaux also buys from fisherman. He gets see the market from all angles. "As of now, I'm not buying from anybody," said Breaux, adding, "With New Orleans the way it is, I'm going to lose about $200,000 per year."

As the population falls in New Orleans, Breaux is being forced elsewhere to find new markets. "Most of the (markets) I lost in New Orleans just aren't going to come back fast enough. So, Iwhat I have done is move my market to the west, to Houston. Just keep moving west. The people just aren't in New Orleans anymore."

A local fisherman, Tommy Breaux of B&C Seafood, laments that the bulk of the local fishing market has shifted from New Orleans to the west, including Baton Rouge and Houston.
Photo taken by: Michael Luke
A local fisherman, Tommy Breaux of B&C Seafood, laments that the bulk of the local fishing market has shifted from New Orleans to the west, including Baton Rouge and Houston.