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Slow pace of salvage work worries Gulf Coast fishermen

EMPIRE, La.—As many as 3,000 commercial fishing vessels in Louisiana may have been stacked on top of one another or washed onto land by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. And each of the six government-hired salvage teams commonly needs more than a day to get one boat back in the water.

It doesn't take much math to figure that it'll be a long time before the state's fishing industry returns to normal.

"Normal? It'll never be normal again," said Jimmy Martinez, the manager of Delta Marina in Empire, a fishing village on the Gulf Coast that along with surrounding villages took the brunt of Katrina. "Not one house is salvageable."

Empire, along with neighboring Venice, has about $50 million in dockside seafood sales annually, placing it second among U.S. ports, after Dutch Harbor in Unalaska, Alaska.

State officials estimate that Louisiana's seafood industry could lose $1.8 billion in retail sales in the year after Katrina and Rita. Louisiana previously ranked No. 1 in commercial seafood landings among Gulf Coast and Atlantic Coast states, with about $294 million in dockside sales in 2003.

The state provides about 40 percent of the nation's oyster harvest and about half of the Gulf Coast's shrimp catch.

Martinez estimates that 1,000 to 1,500 fishing boats were moored at Empire when Katrina hit, and only a handful got through without being damaged or hoisted onto land. Many floated a mile or more away but sustained little damage when receding waters set them down.

Coast Guard spokesman Jay Lipinski said the Coast Guard had 1,864 documented cases of commercial vessels in southern Louisiana so far that needed to be salvaged, and that more were likely to be identified. Of those, 1,313 are targeted for salvage under the federal program.

Under an $85 million contract with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Coast Guard hired salvage companies that have brought in six heavy-duty cranes on barges to salvage boats in the area that are interfering with marina operations or are clogging waterways. About 80 boats have been salvaged so far under the federal program.

"The scope of this is something we've never had to deal with before," Lapinski said.

Coast Guard officials have no definite timetable for the work but hope to be finished in six months to a year. Boat owners who don't have insurance aren't charged, while those with insurance have the fees, commonly about $10,000, covered by their policies.

Fishermen said their boats weren't getting back in the water fast enough.

"It's taking too long," said Tony Tesvich, the president of the Plaquemines Parish Oyster Association. "A lot of fishermen are taking it into their own hands and hiring a private company."

They include Minh Chau, whose 38-foot shrimp boat ended up on a road nearly a mile from where it was docked. Chau had the boat hauled back near the water and placed on blocks.

He and his younger brother worked Monday to patch holes in the boat's fiberglass. Few fishermen are on the water but they hope to get out in a few weeks.

"Right now, their boats are all broken," said Chau, who's married and has three children. "I think I'm lucky. I still have a boat."

Fishermen with boats are reporting good catches.

Tesvich said he'd been catching "a good bit" of oysters lately around Houma, roughly 80 to 100 sacks a day, 100 pounds each. Martinez said one shrimper recently caught 3,000 pounds in a day and a half.

However, oyster fisherman Braco Madjor, a Croatian, had a private company put his boat in the water for $7,000, but he can't fish in his area yet. The state still is testing water and oysters from some oyster beds.

Some beds were damaged by the hurricanes. Madjor said the ones he fished also had damage from tugboats that had strayed from channels and ripped up the beds.

Fishermen who have boats on the water also have to deal with other obstacles. The Empire area remains without power, and diesel fuel and ice have to be hauled in from miles away.

The Coast Guard is holding a series of meetings in the area—with Vietnamese interpreters on hand—to inform fishermen of the salvage efforts and to better gauge "what we're up against," Lipinski said.

Vietnamese and other immigrants compose a majority of the fishermen.

"The shrimp boats you're looking at here, 95 percent of them belong to Vietnamese fishermen," Martinez said during a tour around Empire's port.

Some of the boats carried spray-painted messages from their owners in broken English. "I need go to work," one said.

Mike Voisin, a seventh-generation Louisiana oysterman who serves on a state oyster task force and is president of the seafood coalition National Fisheries Institute's shellfish committee, said Louisiana and Mississippi together accounted for about 300 million pounds of oysters annually.

This year, he said, the two states' harvest will drop to about 100 million pounds because of damage to oyster beds and boats. The reduction means higher prices.

"Oyster prices (in the Gulf Coast and East Coast) have gone up, at dockside, as high as 25 to 50 percent," Voisin said.

Voisin estimates that 15 percent of the boats in the Gulf Coast fishing fleet are still out of commission.

"There are boats all over the place," he said.

Voisin said oyster price increases for consumers nationwide varied, depending on whether they were prepared at restaurants, served raw at oyster bars or bought at markets. Voisin said 100-pound bags of oysters were selling at docks in the Gulf Coast for about $24 to $30, compared with $18 to $20 last year.

He said shrimp prices nationally were hardly affected because almost 90 percent of the shrimp consumed in the United States is imported.

Voisin hopes that oyster harvests in the region return to previous levels within four or five years. He said one proposal for restoring oyster beds called for stocking them with oyster "seedlings" from hatcheries.

Voisin, 52, said that although Katrina was the worst, his family had weathered hurricanes before.

"We will overcome," he said.

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BY THE NUMBERS

U.S.: $3.4 billion in seafood catches.

Louisiana: $294 million in commercial seafood landings; ranked No. 1 in dollar amount for Gulf Coast and Atlantic Coast states.

Empire-Venice, La.: $50.8 million in commercial seafood landings; ranked No. 2 in dollar value of landings among U.S. ports.

Source: National Marine Fisheries Service commercial fishery landings data for 2003, www.st.nmfs.gov/st1/commercial/index.html

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): WEA-STORMS-FISHING

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