Economic development leaders are helping fishermen displaced by the BP oil spill find new jobs


The owners of the Mariah Jade Shrimp Company are fourth-generation shrimpers. The Chauvin-based company has weathered slow seasons and hurricanes and, like others in the fishing industry, is weathering the aftereffects of an oil spill the likes of which the Gulf of Mexico has never seen before.

But Mariah Jade owner Kim Chauvin said she and the people who operate the company’s three boats have no plans to give up the family business; they still plan to eventually turn it over to a fifth generation of shrimpers.

“For us, we’re going to wait it out,” Chauvin said. “This is our livelihood. This is what we’ve been doing for years. My heart goes out to the ones who feel like they have to retrain for something else.”

Like Chauvin, many in the fishing industry are evaluating their future work plans as they assess what impact the spill will have on the fishing community. As they do, a recent study shows, many are deciding that they will remain in the fishing industry, expecting that it will rebound in a season or two.

Still, the state’s economic development leaders are in the early stages of preparing for ways to help seafood industry workers transition from fishing to other industries, even though many of those in the industry don’t seem to be interested in making such a change.

“We knew early on that we may need to be doing some work-force development because who knew how many people would want to remain in the fishing industry,” said Carmen Sunda, director of the Louisiana Small Business Development Center for the Greater New Orleans region. “The problem we’re having is there are a number of people studying the issue, but the fishermen, they are not even thinking about this. When you talk to fishermen and you say, ‘Is there anything else you would like to do besides fishing,’ they look at you with a blank stare. Fishing is not what they do, it’s who they are. It’s a culture.”

Sunda’s findings mirror those of a focus group study on Louisiana fishers, released last week by GNO Inc.

The larger study was designed to measure the economic impact of the oil spill on the fisheries. But one chapter, centered on the reactions of fishers and other people in the industry to the spill, found that there was little eagerness or urgency among fishers to do anything else.

“One impression taken from these meetings is that fishermen are disaster veterans. Having persevered through so many disasters, it is difficult for many commercial fishermen to accept the gravity of this one,” the study’s authors wrote. “That’s not saying that they aren’t acutely aware of the possibilities of total loss, but they are in no rush to accept the worst-case scenario. Fishermen do not believe that commercial fishing could be over in Louisiana.”

The focus group included interviews with 75 people, including captains, deckhands, dock owners and seafood purveyors. Most of those interviewed harvested oysters and shrimp.

Robin Barnes, executive vice president of regional economic development agency Greater New Orleans Inc., said her group is using the study’s findings as part of a larger effort to determine demand for worker retraining programs.

“What we wanted to do was lay out some options short and long term and start to assess what are the interests in retraining,” Barnes said. “At this moment in time I think everyone is in a thoughtful kind of stage so that we can create some kind of opportunity, so that when we do have interest from the fishermen there is a program in place for them.”

Being prepared

Retraining fishers could prove a massive undertaking. According to the study, “very few” fishers thought they had any transferable skills that would qualify them for employment other than commercial fishing and perhaps the oil and gas industry. Others expressed concern about costs for training and a reluctance to transition from being self-employed to reporting to someone else.

The Louisiana Workforce Commission, through a $10 million national emergency grant, is beginning to try to assuage some of those concerns. The commission is planning to fund programs that would provide alternative work-force training to displaced fishers as well as business training for fishers who decide to remain in the industry, said the commission’s executive director, Curt Eyesink. The programs would be carried out in cooperation with trade associations, technical colleges, community groups and other associations.

The retraining would cover a variety of industries including health care, construction, and film and digital media, Eyesink said. But the focus will still remain on providing workers with business skills to deal with future crises in the industry should they decide to remain and on developing other water-based industries such as seafood inspection and testing, Eyesink said.

“Many of the people affected that’s where they live. Many of them don’t want to leave those areas if they can stay,” Eyesink said. “We want people to be ready to return, and if it doesn’t return we want them ready for something else that is sustainable in the areas that they live.”

Barnes said her group is also looking at ways to train fishers with relatively easily accessible skills they can use in the off season.

“We believe it’s important to have a flexible work force,” Barnes said. “We will always have disasters.”

Creating opportunities

But Barnes said even if retraining or additional skills training become options, GNO Inc. will still work to preserve the industry.

“Our goal is not to encourage people to transition,” Barnes said. “Our goal is to make sure there are opportunities for people to do that if they elect to.”

Chauvin said while there may be some interest in those programs, she believes they will be slow to catch on.

“What do you do for money while you’re being retrained?” Chauvin asked. “It’s a precarious situation for most of us, just the uncertainty.”

Sunda and others said it may take getting another fishing season out of the way before people who have spent their lives on the water decide what to do next.

“I think the problem is, it’s a little too early in the process for a fisherman that’s been doing this for many, many years and generations to really seriously consider changing,” Sunda said. “It’s kind of early and they want to see what happens.”

In the meantime, Sunda said she has met with fishers who are taking short-term employment in familiar fields like construction.

“I think it’s just going to take some time for them to really wrap their heads around it.”

But even if the ecological effects are not as bad as some fear, fishers will still have to contend with image problems.

“We still have to make that case to people who have perhaps found other suppliers of their seafood around the country that Louisiana seafood is safe,” Eyesink said. “We need to dispel any doubt they have. How long that takes, I couldn’t tell you.”

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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