Report from the Gulf

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  August 10, 2010

"People that's out on the water are different than people off the water," he says. "It's a genetic defect."

But Clara, who handles the bills, can't help but wonder if it is time for something new. Not that she has any idea what she would do; it's been 30 years since she worked in an office.

The wind whips up and the fisherman's wife steadies her tent before turning to a visitor.

"I'm scared," she says.

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PARADISE LOST: Pete Gerica and his wife, Clara, were just recovering from Hurricane Katrina when the BP oil rig exploded. With the resulting closure of the gulf’s prime fisheries, the Gericas and many like them are wondering how much longer they can make a living off the polluted sea.

Food matters here
New Englanders have a strong attachment to the ocean and its bounty. Lobster is more than just lobster in these parts. But in Louisiana, the attachment is of a different order.

Two years ago, some 918 million pounds of seafood landed on the state's docks, a catch second only to Alaska's — and greater than that of all of the New England states combined.

The shrimp, oysters, drum, and crabs of the gulf bring $2.4 billion and tens of thousands of jobs to the economy. They are also part of a cultural wealth unique to New Orleans.

Gumbo. Po-boys. Baked oysters. Blackened fish. Food matters here. More than any other place in the country, perhaps.

"I think everybody knows, and is probably tired of hearing after Katrina, about our culture, our culture, our culture," local chef Susan Spicer says. "But food is a huge part of who we are and how we relate to each other, how we celebrate, how we grieve, how we socialize, how we cope."

Now, even after BP has contained the gusher, Louisiana's culinary order is in a state of disastrous disruption.

The federal government has closed one-third of the American portion of the gulf to commercial fishing. Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida have roped off hundreds of miles of coastline. Even a portion of Lake Pontchartrain is off limits.

And the crude has done enormous damage to public opinion. Gulf seafood may be the most tested in the country right now, but restaurants and wholesalers around the country are turning it away. A recent University of Minnesota study found 44 percent of Americans unwilling to touch the stuff.

All this for an industry already under stress.

Over the past decade or so, Louisiana shrimpers have watched farm-raised shrimp from Ecuador, Vietnam, and China seize some 90 percent of the domestic market. Crabs from Venezuela and Indonesia have made indelicate inroads, too.

Add in rising fuel prices, a politically powerful recreational-fishing industry jockeying for space on the water, and Katrina's brutish blitzkrieg, and you begin to see why Louisiana's complement of licensed commercial fishermen has dipped from nearly 30,000 in 1987 to fewer than 13,000 today.

Now, with that depleted fleet suddenly idled by the spill, the stress has intensified and is rippling up Louisiana's grand food chain: from dock, to shucking house, to kitchen, putting oystermen, distributors, and chefs under siege.

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