Shrimping is a way of life in Louisiana that's been passed down for generations. Now that culture is in jeopardy, as families of shrimpers have lost everything because of Hurricane Katrina. Host Steve Curwood talks with Kerry St. Pe, who's leading an effort to preserve Louisiana's wetlands and way of life.
CURWOOD: Joining me now to talk about how the Louisiana shrimping community has weathered the storm is Kerry St. Pe. He's led the effort to preserve the state's wetlands, fisheries and Cajun culture, and he's also director of the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program. Mr. St. Pe, hello.
ST. PE: Hello.
CURWOOD: Tell me what you’ve seen in the shrimping community since the storm. What’s it look like down there?
ST. PE: Well, as you might expect our shrimping community has been devastated. Both the region, a lot of the wetlands have been impacted, of course, but the infrastructure that supports that industry has been just decimated. Of course, this is the time when our shrimpers make their living. This is when they make their money.
CURWOOD: And their boats are gone?
ST. PE: We have several boats, many – of course, the shrimpers, they’re used to the impacts of hurricanes. So they’re aware that they have to move their boats to safe harbor, and most of them have moved out into protected waters. But, of course, you can’t move the infrastructure: the places where they sell their shrimp, the places where they get ice to preserve their catch, the roads that transport truckloads of shrimp to the processing facilities. All that has been destroyed.
CURWOOD: So, even if folks are out there trying to catch, they can’t sell catch, huh?
ST. PE: That’s right. And our shrimpers have been impacted economically for many years. I think most of the nation is aware of the artificially low prices of our shrimp, largely caused by cheap imports that have been coming into our country. It’s kept the prices down, and the money that the shrimpers are getting in just is not keeping up with the expenses.
CURWOOD: So, it was already a bad year before the storm.
ST. PE: Our shrimpers have had several years of heavy impacts to their industry, yes. And because of the stresses on the industry we have seen people reluctantly moving on to other jobs. But we have a large, large shrimping community that has stubbornly tried to stay with this way of life.
CURWOOD: Take me for a brief excursion into this way of life. What does a shrimper do? Tell me what happens. They get up in the morning, and then what happens?
ST. PE: Well, the large commercial shrimpers have very large boats. These boats are capable of going out in the open Gulf. There’s a small crew, a captain. There’s food to sustain them on board. They may go out for a week or two at a time, depending on the size of boat. They’re in constant communication with each other over radio. It’s a great experience to hear them talk on the radio, they all have nicknames for each other and it’s a very close-knit community. And when their holds are full of catch they will come in to shore to what we call the shrimp sheds. They offload their catch onto conveyor belts and from there, trucks will take the catch and bring it into the processing plants.
CURWOOD: And now none of this is going on.
ST. PE: Well, there’s no place to bring the shrimp. The shrimp sheds themselves, the first place that the shrimpers would pull into, are gone, literally. Additionally, there’s a lot of debris out in the Gulf. Damage to nets is highly probable, highly likely. All of these things have just put them out of business for this season.
CURWOOD: Looking down the road, do you think this is going to be just a year’s loss of this shrimping industry? Or might it take longer to bring things back?
ST. PE: It depends how much, how quick the infrastructure is rebuilt. We could be back as a shrimping industry next year if the ice houses and the shrimp sheds are rebuilt. My only fear is that our culture, since it’s so tied to our wetlands, and our communities have been so intact for generations, we’ve maintained this cultural identity. My worry is that forces beyond our control will dictate how we rebuild and we will look like something other than what we’ve been for generations.
If we’re going to rebuild these communities, you know, the physical infrastructure in the communities themselves, and the levy systems that protect them, we’ve got to do that at the very same time that we restore our wetlands. We cannot have a wetlands system – the system that clothes our communities – and not have the communities themselves. I mean, they’ve go to be restored together if we’re going to keep our identity as a people.
CURWOOD: Kerry St. Pe. is the director of the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Project between the Mississippi and the Atchafalaya rivers. Mr. St. Pe, thanks for taking this time with me today.
ST. PE: OK. Thank you for calling and allowing us to tell our story.
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