Shrimp and oil are still king at this Louisiana festival


After the BP oil spill, the organizers of one of America’s more unusual civic celebrations began fielding the phone calls, the ones that invariably asked: Are you really going to have it this year?

In response, they erected a big billboard on U.S. 90 as it winds west from New Orleans through the heart of Cajun country.

“YES,” the sign said. “We Are Having 75th Annual Shrimp and Petroleum Festival.”

Morgan City’s civic leaders never doubted they would green-light their paean to crustaceans and crude, even though one of the featured industries has been threatening, of late, to wipe the other one out.

“We still need both,” said Lee Darce, assistant director and vendor chairwoman of the festival, as she drove a golf cart on this muggy September Sunday among busy booths hawking boiled shrimp, shrimp on a stick, bacon-wrapped shrimp and shrimp etouffee. “That’s what makes our community. That’s our lifeblood.”

In Morgan City, a community of 12,700 on the banks of the Atchafalaya River, fishing and offshore oil-related industries are of paramount economic importance and are deeply intertwined. Many offshore oil workers fish for extra income on the side. Businessmen like Al Adams III — the owner of a boat transmission company and this year’s shrimp and petroleum king — serve fishermen and offshore companies.

Mayor Tim Matte is aware that the festival can seem pretty weird to outsiders. “But we’ve always thought it’s unusual that they think it’s unusual,” he said. “As far as the workers are concerned, there’s always been a kinship of working over the water.”

Matte and others say the oil spill, instead of smothering this year’s festivities, has infused them with a new intensity: a yearning for catharsis after a soul-crushing summer, a hope for a return to a lost harmony between the two industries, and a celebration of a culture that is resilient enough to withstand the worst.

“There’s a spirit here that we’re going to overcome this,” said Adams, carrying his king’s crown on the city docks Sunday morning.

The Rev. Daniel M. Poche of Morgan City’s Holy Cross Catholic Church held Mass under the oaks of Lawrence Park, saying that true disciples of Christ must emulate him and carry their cross.

Poche said this community’s crosses were the recent hurricanes — Katrina, Rita, Gustav — and, of course, the oil spill.

“With the help of God we picked them up,” he said in an interview. “And the feeling is a feeling of hope.”

A few hours later, on the docks in front of the broad, brown Atchafalaya, Lt. Gov. Scott Angelle warmed up a crowd of hundreds who waited for Poche to bless the local fleet.

Angelle, a Democrat, called Morgan City a place where “we fuel America, but also feed America … a slice of America where we can have it all, where we can celebrate the greatness of the shrimp industry, but also the greatness of the petroleum industry.”

Locals Charlie Delaune, 54, and Eric Crochet, 50, were standing on the dock, sipping cans of Budweiser and admiring the proceedings. The two men work at Conrad Shipyard, where they said work had slowed down and hours had been reduced, in large part because of the Obama administration’s moratorium on deep-water drilling.

Crochet didn’t expect things to get better soon. “It’s like when you get cut,” he said. “It takes a while to get healed back.”

But the two men were happy today, and Delaune said the crowds, in the first half of the four-day festival, had showed “a pretty good spirit.”

They turned their attention to the water where, Adams, in his crown, was at the prow of a shrimp boat with a goblet of champagne. He and this year’s shrimp and petroleum queen, Lani Marie Bergeron, toasted the crowd.

For decades, this had been a shrimp festival. But from midcentury onward, the oil and gas industry — which installed the first successful offshore oil well 43 miles south of here in 1947 — came to coexist with the seafood industry. The city, recognizing the shift, changed the name of the festival in 1967.

In the ensuing years, oil and gas would come to overshadow seafood here. Locals said that the oil jobs were hard to resist: They were lucrative, and a relatively secure source of income compared with the unpredictable life of the shrimper.

But you can’t eat a tar ball. And on the fairway under the bridge Sunday, food stands delighted the masses with shrimp remoulade, shrimp and tasso pasta, and Cajun fried shrimp boats. Christie Tassin, 35, owner of Cafe Ahnvee in Lafayette, was selling pistolettes, fried bread rolls stuffed with shrimp etouffee.

On the surface, her booth was little different than it was last year. But she had priced the pistolettes at $6 this year, up from $4. The price of shrimp — and nearly everything else from the sea — is up this year, she said. At her restaurant, she has started serving oysters from Washington state, because the local product had more than doubled in price after shortages brought on by dead oyster beds.

After the morning’s speeches, obvious evidence of the oil spill could be hard to detect. An illustrator from New Orleans, Jon Guillaume, was selling a $20 print of a monocled, top-hatted Tony Hayward, the BP chief executive, defecating in the gulf. But Guillaume said it wasn’t a big seller.

In fact, a number of people said they weren’t angry at BP. These things happen, they said. Many were angrier at President Obama about the drilling moratorium.

They were also proud of the cleanup work. Farther from the river, the oil field services company Oceaneering had one of its remotely operated vehicles on display. It was the same kind of undersea robot that the company had been using to carry out the months-long attempt to fix the BP well about 5,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. The robots are manufactured in Morgan City.

BP was represented here too. They had been among a number of oil industry sponsors for years, but had taken a hiatus in recent years, Darce said. This year, the company pitched in $5,000, according to festival president Nathalie Weber.

BP had hung a banner, with its distinctive yellow-and-green sunburst logo, on a fence surrounding a children’s play area. Underneath, kids played at an ersatz fishing hole.

The game involved reeling in one of the plastic toy pistols that were floating in a baby pool.

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

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