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Disaster in the Gulf 

Lawmakers passed long-sought bills to help the shrimp industry last week, but a black mass of trouble in the Gulf could spoil the celebration

You have to wonder if there's ever a good time to be a commercial shrimper in Louisiana. Two hurricanes in 2005 and two more in 2008 devastated the industry's infrastructure, and federal aid trickles in slowly. Shrimpers also have sought relief from cheap, foreign imports — to little avail. The feds responded with a tariff program that has not lived up to expectations.

  A glimmer of hope surfaced early last week, when lawmakers and Gov. Bobby Jindal coalesced behind bills that would create and fund a certification program for wild-caught shrimp — and fund a marketing strategy. It was a feel-good moment, that morning of Wednesday, April 28.

  Hours later, everything changed.

  By the next morning, the Coast Guard had alerted the media that the explosion of BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig was expected to leak five times as much crude oil into the Gulf as originally forecast. Louisiana politicians were quick to let their constituents know they were taking action. Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency April 29, and Sen. David Vitter sent out a memo saying BP was looking for vessels for hire (including shrimpers) to help deploy containment booms. Sen. Mary Landrieu came back from Washington, D.C., for a tour of the affected area, as did Rep. Charlie Melancon, who wrote to federal administrators urging them to direct disaster funding to commercial and recreational fishermen. Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao called for congressional hearings into the disaster. And the White House, which just last month lifted some objections to offshore drilling, much to environmentalists' fury, was quick to announce a new ban on offshore drilling.

  Meanwhile, shrimpers quickly asked the state to immediately open some areas for trawling. The inshore shrimp season typically opens in mid-May, and major shrimp and oyster harvesting areas are located in the eastern part of Louisiana near the expanding oil slick.

  The American Shrimp Processors Association asked its New Orleans lawyer, Edward Hayes, to monitor the situation as the oil approached fragile coastal marshes. Hayes says numerous seafood harvesters and producers have asked him to pursue potential claims. "The last thing we want to do is inflame a devastating situation, but we have been fighting to protect the domestic shrimp industry for years, and it is our responsibility to make sure that shrimp and all local seafood industries survive this disaster and obtain compensation if owed," he says.

  The Louisiana Shrimp Task Force was set up temporarily last year after hundreds of shrimpers and processors went on strike and protested at the Capitol to raise awareness about plummeting prices. This year, House Bill 875 by Rep. Joe Harrison, D-Napoleonville, would anchor the task force within the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. "We have been somewhat complacent in stabilizing that market and helping it compete," Harrison says. "We need to step up to the plate."

  One of the first official recommendations from the task force is in Harrison's companion House Bill 890, which calls for a certification program for Louisiana wild-caught shrimp and other seafood. Other coastal states have similar seafood programs, and supporters here hope the Louisiana version will create new marketing strategies for fishermen and processors.

  Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain says his department is already inspecting meat, poultry and eggs, so shrimp won't be a stretch. "We have a tremendous opportunity to better harvest, better market, better sell and demand a better price," he says.

  Harrison emphasizes the program is not a mandate. "This is not something that we're going to go out there and force some fishermen to participate in," he says. "I think they'll want to participate in this, though. It's a major step forward."

  House Bill 1346, the final measure in the package, establishes a source of funding for the program. The bill, authored by House Natural Resources Chairman Gordon Dove, R-Houma, and supported by the governor, would authorize 10 percent of the annual deposits made to the Artificial Reef Development Fund to create and maintain the certification program. Dove says that should generate $800,000 or more a year.

  All three bills await action on the House floor, and there's no doubt the oil spill will be brought up during debate this week. Rep. Jerry "Truck" Gisclair, D-Larose, and a member of the House Natural Resources Committee, says he embraces the shrimp package "with my heart" and hopes it can still have an impact on an industry that continues to ply troubled waters. "This is one of the best moves we can make to save an endangered lifestyle," Gisclair says.

Jeremy Alford can be reached at jeremy@jeremyalford.com.

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