by Ed Lallo/Louisiana Seafood News
Week after week, Forrest Gump and his first mate, Lieutenant Dan, had little luck catching shrimp. However, things changed big time after Hurricane Carmen struck.
Fast forward to 2012 and life mirrors the 1994 movie that made Forrest Gump’s Bubba Gump Shrimp one of the most recognized names in the history of seafood.
No sooner had Nicky Alfonso and other Louisiana shrimpers dug out from Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill than Hurricane Isaac tore into the southeastern coast, producing more destruction and another round of cleanup.
The storm brought high winds of up to 100 mph, rain and a storm surge that flooded low-lying areas.
While Isaac didn’t duplicate the devastation of Katrina seven years ago, it delivered a solid punch to fishing and shrimping communities including Lafitte, Plaquemines Parish, Hopedale, Shell Beach and Delacroix.
“The forecast was for Isaac to be a tropical storm or a Category 1 hurricane,” said Alfonso, a lifelong fisherman. “I left my boat tied to the docks at Delacroix Island. When the storm came ashore, I knew my boat was in trouble.”
Crying like a baby, Alfonso said he “asked God, with all I have done to help others, give me this one chance to get my boat back.”
He was blessed. His 38-foot shrimp boat had sustained a few holes, but was still in the water caught between two trees. Most of his dock and crab traps were gone, however.
After the storm, fisherman after fisherman dealt with the setbacks with grit, determination and passion for their livelihoods.
Clean Up, Go On
“Fishing is just something you grow up doing and it’s part of our culture here,” said Clint Guidry, president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association and a third-generation Louisiana shrimper and fisherman.
“My grandparents on both sides raised families in one-room trapping camps. We come from some pretty hardy people. You just clean up and go.”
After cleaning up after the storm and returning to their boats, fishermen like Alphonso found shrimp hard to find on the eastern coast of Louisiana. That is until a severe cold front moved swiftly through eight weeks later – creating the “Bubba Gump Shrimp” effect.
“A very unique situation took place around the fishing community of Delacroix,” explained Pete Gerica, president of the Lake Pontchartrain Fishermen Association.
“Hurricane Isaac pushed shrimp into the marshes and estuaries, where they fed and grew. A surprisingly stiff October cold front pushed them out into open water.”
As the shrimp rode the rapidly falling tides out of the marsh, Alfonso was waiting in the channel with lowered nets.
Historic Hauls for Shrimpers
Alfonso had dragged shrimp nets in the marshes around Delacroix Island as long as he can remember, but he never ever witnessed what happened that Friday night after the passage of the cold front.
“It’s the biggest haul I’ve ever seen,” he recalled, “not just for me – for everybody. I never thought we could have caught that much shrimp.”
After the extreme cold front moved through, shrimpers caught monster amounts of 16- to 20-count shrimp everywhere around Delacroix. Areas included the waterway that runs in front of the camps, the houses and the marinas that make up the fishing community.
Dragging one of his favorite sweet shrimp spots near Little Lake, he returned to the dock with more than 8,000 pounds of shrimp. The catch was so enormous he had to pile shrimp on his deck because the boat had ran out of storeroom.
Alfonso was not alone. Almost every boat arriving at commercial docks were brimming over with more shrimp than they were equipped to handle.
Too Many Shrimp to Process
Smaller boats were bringing in between 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of white shrimp, while the larger boats contained more than 8,000 pounds. Boats were so loaded down with shrimp, a few looked as if they were within a foot of sinking
Shrimpers were catching between 700 to 800 pounds in a single-hour push.
By late Saturday, the enormous amount of shrimp started to cause problems for shrimpers, buyers and processers. Boats were forced to stay dockside because processing plants were straining to keep up.
One processer shut down for a half day to give employees time to rest
Long-time residents of the island reported they had never seen this much shrimp caught in one day in their lifetimes.
“This is almost exactly the Forrest Gump movie scenario,” said Gerica. “Hurricane Isaac hit hard in the area and a number of shrimpers lost boats. Those that managed to escape the storms wrath are cashing in with the unusually large catch.”
After the Storm
Historic Harvest Isn’t Worth Damage, Loss and Suffering
The record-setting shrimp run was a definite result of Hurricane Isaac and a timely cold front, but longtime fisherman Nicky Alfonso sees such storms as bringing far more grief than good for Louisiana’s seafood community.
“No storm is worth a few shrimp. The loss of life, property and our valuable fishing grounds takes a toll on everyone.”
He sees the lifestyle of his beloved Delacroix Island being carried away – one storm at a time.
“Our future is in bad shape unless we start to rebuild lost marshes and estuaries,” said Alfonso, who has taken industry experts into the marshes to view the lost land mass.
“Around Delacroix, we need funding made available to rebuild the marshes, but parishes along the entire coast are fighting for the same money.”
Alfonso can tell exactly how much land loss each storm causes.
With Hurricane Katrina, he said the area between St. Bernard Parish and the Mississippi River lost one-third of its previous land mass. The same area with Isaac lost another quarter.
“We know it is drifting away,” he said. “We see points and duck ponds disappear, and our nets fill with mud and grasses.”
Without replacing lost land, he is certain his grandkids will never be able to enjoy that which he loves so much.
Like others in the seafood community, this resilient fisherman has gone through so much during the last few years. Still, Alfonso realizes that no matter how bad he has it, there are other people far worse off.
After Hurricane Sandy, “my heart goes out to the people of New York and New Jersey,” he said.
“During Katrina, I got to meet a lot of good people that came from there to help us in our time of need. We know what they are going through, and they are in our hearts and prayers.”