Gulf Seafood Industry Crippled by Ike’s Damage

September 26, 2008

On the eve of October’s peak seafood harvesting season, migrant fishermen are sweeping debris from gutted bay side homes instead of scooping shrimp and oysters from the lucrative Gulf floor. The $100 million fishing industry in Galveston Bay is virtually paralyzed.

Gulf harvesters and state officials predict Hurricane Ike’s impact will be felt from distributors to the dinner table.

“It’s like a bomb went off,” said Lisa Halili, owner of Prestige Oysters Inc., which is among the largest seafood harvesters in Texas and Louisiana. “This is going to be the biggest challenge the seafood industry in Texas ever had to deal with.”

Some fear it will take as long as two years for the industry to recover.

“Certainly it’s a disruption,” said Lance Robinson, a coastal fisheries director with the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife. “For others it’s devastating.”

Most fisherman make between $100 and $150 a day working in the marinas in San Leon, with hundreds of migrants with work visas arriving between the peak harvesting months of October and April. The trailers where they lived, and their jobs, are gone.

Wearing rubber fishing boots and a shirt stained by oyster meat, Martin Duran looked like he was headed to the docks just as he’s done each day for 12 years in San Leon. Instead he was going to clean houses battered by the Ike, the only work he can find.

“I’ve got no job, no paycheck,” said Duran, who has four kids. “I don’t know what’s going to happen here.”

Galveston Bay fishermen haul about 9 million pounds of Gulf shrimp and 3 million pounds of oysters each year, Robinson said. About 60 percent of oysters sold in the eastern U.S. come from Texas and Louisiana, the bulk from Galveston Bay.

Louisiana landed more than 499,000 tons of fish worth $278 million last year, and Texas brought in nearly 42,500 tons worth $174.3 million.

Ike heavily affected fisheries throughout south Louisiana, killing fish in large areas, creating habitat loss across the Louisiana coastline. Boats were also lost.

Representatives of Louisiana’s $2.6 billion seafood industry are asking the state’s congressional delegation for federal relief. Early estimates indicate the industry sustained up to $300 million in economic losses due to Gustav and Ike.

Ike killed hundreds of acres of oyster reefs with waves of shocking saltwater, and suffocated others with grass Ike clawed from Bolivar Peninsula and washed into the Gulf.

Michael Ivic, who runs Misho’s Oyster Company in San Leon with his father, is desperate to drive a boat out and pull up oysters. He figures he has two weeks to save whatever reefs remain.

But the bay remained closed after Ike struck, and Ivic doesn’t even know which state agency to call to get the waters reopened to boats. Ivic said his company is a chief supplier to national restaurant chains Landry’s and Joe’s Crab Shack.

“We might lose them,” said Ivic, 26.

Some fisherman who already tried salvaging whatever is left in the Gulf say don’t bother. “Pictures and clothes down there,” said Juaquin Patila, 24. “But there’s no more reef.”

Associated Press writer Alan Sayre in New Orleans contributed to this report.

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