Acadiana coastal seafood gets help to survive

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While a vast amount of Gulf seafood is enjoyed on tables and restaurants across the country, the business in rural coastal areas is declining and largely taken for granted by regional economic development strategies. A new collaborative Louisiana economic development plan, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development, seeks to position the Gulf seafood supply chain for future success by inventorying its assets, identifying areas of strategic growth, addressing barriers and aligning with diverse community needs.

The $250,000 grant entitled Community Economic Development in Rural Coastal Acadiana Parishes is a collaborative effort between the University of Louisiana Lafayette and the Meridian Institute. The focus is on on seafood in coastal Acadiana, a very rural region of the state experiencing population decline, high unemployment and the trauma of recent natural and manmade disasters.

The director of Louisiana USDA Rural Developement, Carrie Castille, Ph.D., announces the seafood study grant at an event at the University of Lafayette Louisiana Moody College of Business Administaration. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

While coastal Vermilion, Iberia, and St. Mary Parishes are known for their ports and docks, a thorough understanding of the region’s seafood supply chain assets and associated economic contribution is largely anecdotal…everyone knows where to buy fresh shrimp, but the region does not fully understand the reach of the industry or its potential to harness emerging trends such as aquaculture.

“We’re interested in seafood players within the Vermilion, Iberia, and St. Mary Parish supply chain,” said Geoffrey T. Stewart, Ph.D., the university’s leader of the study and the Moody Company Endowed Chair in Regional Business Development at the Moody College of Business Administration and Gulf Seafood Foundation board member. “Our first goal is to map the entire seafood supply chain so we have a visual understanding of all the moving parts; from everything hitting the water, coming inland, processed and leaving those parishes.”

“We’re interested in seafood players within the Vermilion, Iberia, and St. Mary Parish supply chain,” said Geoffrey T. Stewart, Ph.D., the university’s leader and Gulf Seafood Foundation board member. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

According to Stewart, the primary goal of the study revolves around stakeholder engagement with members of the seafood supply chain in those parishes; fishermen, processors, icehouses and transportation companies. “What we are tying to do is capture the voice of the members of seafood business who have made this community what it is today,” he told Gulf Seafood News. “This business plays a vital role in the preservation of our culture and way of life, especially in these rural Louisiana waterfront communities.”

Understanding Needs of Seafood

During the height of the BP oil spill a unique collaboration between the University of Lafayette Louisiana and LSU Sea Grant spawned Delcambre Direct, the first boat to consumer shrimp sales within the state.

Members of the two-day Gulf seafood tour of Acadiana parishes included (l-r), Deborah Atwoood of the Meridian Institute, Jim Gossen of the Gulf Seafood Foundation, Louisiana USDA Rural Development Director Carrie Castille, Ph.D. and Geoffrey Stewart, Ph.D. of the University of Louisiana Lafayette. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

“Before Delcambre Direct, the University of Louisiana Lafayette provided the foundational market research instrumental in the development the business plan, as well as a boat launch and grocery story,” said Thomas Hymel, who developed the statewide Louisiana Direct seafood program for LSU Sea Grant. “The successful partnership between the state’s two largest universities was responsible for bringing economic life back into the Delcambre community. This study has the potential to breathe new economic life into communities across the Gulf.”

The seafood business plays a vital role in the preservation of Gulf culture and way of life. A shrimper on Grand Isle prepares his boat for an evening on the water. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

To better understand the needs and opportunities, the team will hold focus groups and community meetings to get a handle on where the industry has been and where it might go.

Specializing in community engagement and consensus building amongst diverse groups, the Meridian Institute team will be led by Deborah Atwood, a 35-year veteran of policy and legislative matters related to food, agriculture, and the environment. strategic discussions will be set up with the coastal seafood communities in a way they can tell their own story and envision the economic future of their unique region.

According to Atwood, Meridian has a unique ability to help diverse groups engage constructively on complex and contentious issues. “We will work with our colleagues to help these subject matter experts engage with community leader to consider the full range of opportunities and threats facing these parishes,” she said. “Hand in hand with communities, we will identify approaches to community economic development and vet ideas for how the region can strengthen and grow the seafood supply chain, while ensuring that the local communities benefit from any proposed plans.”

Eye to Eye

“Not receiving our guest workers, or receiving them late in the season, has been a big problem for everyone in the seafood industry across the Gulf,” Floyd told the group gathered in the processing floor, including Meridian Istitute Fellow Deborah Atwood. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

An important part of the approach is bringing cross-sections of the community that often don’t see “eye-to-eye” together so they may benefit from the economic development. Historically Gulf seafood has been a disenfranchised industry filled with infighting between organizations representing various fishing sectors, as well as a deep mistrust between fishermen. Vermilion, Iberia and St Mary Parishes are no exception.

For shrimp processor Jeff Floyd, owner of Gulf Crown in Delcambre, one of the biggest issues facing his business is H2-B guest workers. The state of the art processor is one of the largest on the Gulf coast. This year he did not receive even one of H2-B workers needed to process the shrimp catches.vwatching shrimp fly through various machinery. “We are getting paid 1970 prices and we have trouble getting the labor we need, the only way we are going to survive is on volume, if we can’t get the volume we won’t make it.”

Under the watchful eye of oysterman Jules Melancon, owner of Caminada Bay Oysters, Carrie Castille, Ph.D., Louisiana State Director of USDA Rural Development, shucks down an oyster while learning about cage grown oysters on his boat. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

“It is critical to bring the right group of people together that are willing to speak their mind in an open way without feeling when they step out of the room they will be demonized,” explained Atwood. “It takes time, it takes will, it takes leadership for people to get to the point of voicing their positions.”

The team will work to build trust and create venues where people can safely speak about their interests, listen to one another, and get in a mindset to think creatively about the future and what it will take to build the local economy so that communities can benefit. “These are not easy conversations, but they are essential to crafting an economic development plan that is informed by local people and condition,” she said.

“Our job at USDA Rural Development is to work to help facilitate opportunities and provide resources to benefit rural communities,” according to Dr. Castille who examined shrimp with Meridian’s Deborah Atwood at Gulf Crown Processors in Breaux Bridge. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

With her team of specialist, Carrie Castille, Ph.D., Louisiana State Director of USDA Rural Development, evaluated the proposal for funding. She considered the project extremely valuable in developing a strategic business plan for the seafood industry in rural Louisiana.

“Our job at USDA Rural Development is to work to help facilitate opportunities and provide resources to benefit rural communities,” said Dr. Castille. “This particular project has the potential to identify new markets and opportunities for the state’s seafood industries, the fishermen and the communities that rely on fishing industry.”

The state director emphasized that USDA Rural Development has worked closely with coastal Louisiana seafood communities for quite sometime. “Each coastal community across the state is unique,” she explained. “The common thread in each is looking for opportunities to identify their community as a place to live and work.”
After two days of touring shrimp, crab and oyster facilities in the coastal three parishes, the Washington, D.C. based Atwood is convinced the study is needed more than ever.

A Plan for the Seafood Industry

“This is not going to be just a stale study that sits on a shelf,” said the Meridian Fellow. “This is a plan the seafood industry and coastal parishes will be able to build upon to provide a more united front going forward.”

Shrimper Al Granger and his wife have a hard time I seeing a future in shrimping. They operate a shrimp boat and sell the shrimp out of their home in Maurice, LA. Photo: Ed Lallo/ Newsroom Ink

The future of seafood across the Gulf remains uncertain. Crab to red snapper to oyster, shrimp to crawfish, numerous legislative and environmental issues are hampering not only Louisiana fishermen, but also fishermen across the Gulf.

With depressed shrimp prices at levels not seen since the last century, Louisiana and the Gulf continue to lose shrimpers and boats. Blame for the demise is multifaceted, from the low cost of imports to the BP Horizon spill. But it simply comes down to less shrimp are being landed, and sizes are smaller than ever.

“I don’t see a future in shrimping, I really don’t,” shrimper Al Granger of Maurice, LA told the USDA, grant administrators and media gathered under the shelter of an awning where his wife Cheryl sells shrimp and other seafood. “Commercial fishing is going down, it’s just that bad. Between the prices, the imports and the amount of shrimp we are harvesting… it is just not good.”

The University of Louisiana Lafayette and the Meridian Institute have, at least, a very challenging task. From managing often-abrasive personalities, to navigating hot topics that include H2-B and fresh water diversion, the study has a rocky road to navigate.

“This is an important study for not only the three Louisiana coastal communities, but the entire Gulf Coast,” said Gulf Seafood Foundation Chairman Jim Gossen, who spent two days on the Acadiana seafood tour. “We need to put aside petty differences and come together as community. The time is right for a Gulf wide seafood symposium bringing together all facets of seafood. We have to recognize that we are all in this together and that we need a strong united voice if we are to survive.”

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