Nothing Stays the Same

By  |  March 17, 2020
Photograph by J.T. Blatty from the book Fish Town: Down the Road from Louisiana’s Vanishing Fishing Communities Photograph by J.T. Blatty from the book Fish Town: Down the Road from Louisiana’s Vanishing Fishing Communities

Last Labor Day weekend, the waters of the Atchafalaya ran so uncommonly low that someone in Morgan City, Louisiana, was able to walk into the middle of the river and plant a Trump flag firmly into its sandy bed. The next day, the flag was still flying as boats decorated with crepe paper and streamers lined up for the Blessing of the Fleet, the culminating event of the town’s annual Louisiana Shrimp and Petroleum Festival. 

Shrimp and oil are Morgan City’s two most historically lucrative industries, and the weekend-long celebration has been running for decades. The day before the blessing, gospel choirs and rock bands performed underneath oak trees in the town’s park, and tables of fried-shrimp baskets and arts and crafts were set up under the bridge that leads to the neighboring town of Berwick. Banners surrounding the park announced the presence of former festival royalty. SHRIMP AND PETROLEUM KING 2005, one read; another, tacked to the fence of an antebellum mansion, boasted the presence of a festival king from 1982. Elected by a local committee, the festival king is traditionally a longtime Morgan City resident who’s worked in either shrimp or oil, while the queen is a young woman in her early twenties, a symbol of fertility and renewal. Sunday afternoon, the new queen wore a royal blue gown and a tiara featuring the festival’s logo, in rhinestones: a shrimp wearing a hard hat, twisted around an oil rig. Along the dock, visitors sipped the festival’s signature “Petro Punch,” a high-fructose-corn-syrup–addled rum, waiting for the blessing to begin.

But this weekend wasn’t like festivals of years past, when a parade of a hundred or so shrimp boats would pass in front of a Catholic priest on the dock to receive the blessing for a safe and hearty harvest. Among the dinghies and motorboats, just two shrimp boats were in attendance this year. “Everything’s gone to shit here,” Morgan City native Kermit Duck said from the cockpit of the Miss Stephanie (named for his wife), as he attempted to navigate the ever-widening sandbar in the middle of the river. Duck has watery blue eyes and skin that’s seen a lot of days in the sun. His bottom lip was packed with chew. “They say they don’t have enough money to dredge,” he said.

A few weeks before the festival, the Atchafalaya River had surpassed Morgan City’s dock and the water had threatened the town’s sea wall. Now the grass and boardwalk along the river were covered in dust, and the riverbed was only a few feet beneath the water’s surface. The Army Corps of Engineers sends thirty percent of the water in the Mississippi River down the Atchafalaya to feed the bayous and to protect New Orleans from flooding. Diversions flood the brackish bayous with sediment-rich fresh water, and that sediment is gradually deposited on its way down the Atchafalaya, which raises the riverbed. This is how Louisiana was formed: rivers put down sediment, then changed course every century or so, and the land kept forming around the river’s dynamic and ever-changing mouth. Because of the sediment, the Atchafalaya has to be dredged constantly. Bayous are filled in, something engineers see as a sign of progress; if we fill in the bayous and estuaries of the wetlands, we can protect New Orleans from hurricanes. We can prevent Louisiana from sinking into the Gulf of Mexico. 

But the shrimping industry hangs in the balance. On this side of the Mississippi River, the shrimpers are devastated by both climate change and humans’ attempts at ameliorating the effects of global warming all at once. “I oughta fill my net every time,” said Duck, his hands on the wheel of the Miss Stephanie, his eyes straight ahead, looking for deeper water. His fifteen-year-old son, Aidan, watched as Duck glided the trawler upriver. The priest was standing on the dock on the Berwick side of the river, flanked by a crowd of spectators, waiting for the boat to pass by. “It depends on the weather. I’m gonna have to do something else. I was born shrimping. All of us. There’s a ton of us. Because of the price and because of fuel we’re not coming out ahead anymore. Not like we were.”

Duck’s friend Douglas Oleander followed close behind us. Oleander had come in from Cypremort Point with his wife, Chrystel, to have his boat, the Miss Chrystel, blessed, and also to eat rib eyes and listen to music. As we approached the dock, Oleander honked his horn. Aidan smiled and shook his head. “I’m gonna rip that horn off of that boat,” he said. 

Duck is a fourth-generation shrimper. He inherited his first shrimp boat from his grandfather (the Miss Odeal, named after Duck’s grandmother). But he doesn’t want either of his two sons to be shrimpers. “I would have if it had stayed the way it was,” he said. “It’s gotten to where you can’t make a living doing this.” 

When the Miss Stephanie approached the priest, he waved his hands in the direction of the boat and said something no one could hear. I asked what, specifically, he was praying for; Duck seemed to think this was a stupid question. He waited a beat and frowned, then said, “It’s just a general blessing.” After the Miss Stephanie passed by, two barges approached one another in front of the priest. The 2019 Shrimp and Petroleum queen was on one, and the king was on the other. When oil surpassed shrimp as the town’s most lucrative industry in the 1960s, a tugboat was introduced to the blessing, and as the festival’s final act, it would “kiss” a shrimp boat on the water. But there weren’t any tugboats this year, which some people said was because the water was too shallow. Others blamed it on the disappearance of that industry from Morgan City, too.

We climbed onto the deck of the Miss Stephanie to watch. Stephanie, her friend Jennifer, and Kermit’s aunt Shirley held their cell phones out to capture the exact moment when the barges would kiss. The king and queen each held out glasses of champagne as the barges slowly moved toward one another, and I braced myself for what looked inevitable: a massive boat crash, in front of a priest. But Morgan City is a town built on water, and the boat captains know what they’re doing. The king and queen toasted, the crowd cheered, and all the little motorboats and houseboats turned around to dock and enjoy the rest of the festival. Stephanie and Kermit Duck had pounds and pounds of shrimp to boil.

108 PS Riess Blatty2 ccPhotograph by J.T. Blatty from the book Fish Town: Down the Road from Louisiana’s Vanishing Fishing Communities

 

Once Douglas and Chrystel Oleander docked, they didn’t want to go outside. It was too hot, and Little Girl, a shih tzu decked out in an American flag skirt and headpiece, needed to rest in the boat’s cool cabin. A shrimper in his own right, Oleander makes most of his money fishing puppy drum, which is how he met Duck, who got his skimmers caught in Oleander’s fishing lines ten or eleven years ago. The cabin of the Miss Chrystel was party ready, with bags of Tostitos and red, white, and blue Solo cups laid out on the counter of the boat’s kitchenette. Little Girl sat on Chrystel’s lap, which is what she was born to do. 

Puppy drum fishing is going better than shrimping, but both industries are facing the same problems. “You can look at them piles over there—see where the water line is?” Oleander said, pointing out the window of the boat to a heap of lumber on the other side of the river. “That’s where the water was. And it stayed high like that for six or eight months.” 

Oleander looks a little like James Taylor, with round, earnest eyes and thin lips. He doesn’t think global warming is responsible for the rising tides. “This is America,” he said. “Everything expands and gets better and better, with more improvement. And it’s great. But the American fishermen are paying the price. Because the water has got to go somewhere, ma’am. We build the shopping malls, grocery stores, Costco, big subdivisions. That used to be trees and grass. They bulldoze it, then they concrete it. All that land, it didn’t absorb all the water, but it did absorb some of the water, and the excess ran into your ditches and your bayous and your lakes.”

Oleander can’t count how many generations back his family has been shrimping and fishing. Like Duck, he has two sons. Both of them shrimp for a living. He used the tools in front of him on the kitchenette counter—three tubes of Chrystel’s lipstick, including Katy Perry’s Katy Cat Gloss—to explain the way flooding from the Mississippi River is ruining the bayous. “Here’s the Atchafalaya,” he said, positioning a lipstick parallel to the counter’s edge. “And here’s the Mississippi.” He took another lipstick tube and ran it parallel to the first one. “Now, here’s the diversion.” He put the third tube perpendicular between the two. “And what’s taking place is all this terrible, nasty river water, with chemicals and pollution from when it floods up north—people’s houses, sewerage backups. It comes into this river. We at the end of the toilet. You know what I’m getting at? By the time you flush it, nothing can live in it. A few catfish. Great for crawfish, though. I’m not in the crawfish business. I’m into saltwater fishing. And white shrimp, you don’t catch ’em in the rivers, you catch ’em on the edge of the bays and stuff. You gotta have some fresh water, but too much ain’t no good.” 

As sea levels rise, there’s more water than ever coming down the Atchafalaya. Shrimp are being pushed offshore, farther into the Gulf, emptying the bayous that Kermit Duck, Douglas Oleander, and their ancestors have fished for generations. On top of that, the water is polluted. On top of that, the shrimpers have to pay for fuel and ice, and they have to pay for a lot more of it when they’re chasing shrimp into the Gulf. Duck and his wife update their Facebook page with the day’s catch every time he comes home with shrimp. Off the dock, he can set his own price, but when he sells commercially he has to compete with foreign imports, which have become, in his estimation, the greatest threat to the domestic shrimping industry in Louisiana. 

Louisiana is the biggest producer of wild-caught shrimp in the U.S., yet ninety percent of the shrimp eaten in the United States comes from Asia and South America. “The sad thing about it is, you look on the stock market and they’re paying more for imports than they are for domestics,” Duck said. “What we can’t supply, they just ship down. Tons of shrimp, they get what they want. They raise ’em in the ponds and they all want them to be the exact same size. They harvest whatever size shrimp they say the plants want.”

In response to low prices, Louisiana recently passed a law mandating that restaurants in the state print, on their menus, whether their shrimp is imported. The idea is simple: let consumers decide whether they want to eat local seafood and trust marketing—plus the local food movement—to convince them to eat at places that support the industry. Duck wants to see other states pass similar measures. “Mississippi’s following, Texas, Alabama, I heard,” he said. “Let’s hope in the next year it’ll be a nationwide thing.”

 

Shrimpers know the rivers because they’ve grown up fishing them. Mark Davis, the director of Tulane University’s Institute on Water Resources Law & Policy, knows the rivers because he’s spent the past thirty years studying them. Though he sympathizes with the shrimpers to the west of the Mississippi, he has trouble blaming sediment diversion projects for the shrimpers’ problems. “There’s no such thing as ‘what’s good for the shrimp industry’ other than high shrimp prices and low fuel prices,” he said over the phone last September. “Beyond that, a year where you had a lot of water going east, shrimpers on the east side are going to get harmed, but shrimpers on the west are going to have a good year.” 

If the Atchafalaya is getting shallower, he said, that’s because of human intervention. For years we’ve tried to prevent the Atchafalaya from taking over the Mississippi River’s course. “What’s at stake here is the near term versus the long term,” he said. “Not doing diversion projects will have the same impact because the coast is retreating. Doing nothing will bring more salt water and more open water and bigger waves.”

From a preservation perspective, the priority in the bayous right now is to create a sustainable estuary platform. “That’s where the shrimp come from,” Davis told me. “If you lose the marsh—and right now we’re losing the marsh hand over fist—then there will be nothing to produce shrimp in the future.”

“Nothing stays the same,” he added. After shrimp came oil, but as Davis puts it, “most of the oil that’s easy to get, we’ve gotten it. It’s still there, but it’s not worth it to the big guys. They’ve gone to deepwater. To fracking.” 

Morgan City, where the mayor, the town’s bridge, and its largest appliance store all have the same name, has no more lifeline. That’s true of a lot of bayou towns. “They leave,” said Kermit Duck. “Houma, the bayous, Venice. Some don’t have no choice. They go wherever the work’s at. They just leave.”  He told me the average age of the shrimpers is fifty-four. “People aren’t getting their kids into it. Not the younger generation. They got some out there doing it but they’re not following suit like they used to. They can’t afford it.” Aidan Duck started going out with his dad when he was five years old, and for a long time he wanted to be a shrimper, too, until Kermit started getting mad at him for saying that. “They telling me to get a real job,” he said. 

Douglas Oleander grew up in Cypremort Point and still has a house there. “There were three stores in Cypremort Point when I was a kid,” he said. “They were all able to pay the electricity bill and stay open. Now, it’s like a ghost town. Nothing at all! The politicians, they’re selling their camps at Cypremort Point and they’re buying camps over where the water’s more salty. Because they’re able to catch fish. And in our area, nobody’s able to catch nothing at all.”

I asked Mark Davis whether it’s true that the bayous are, first and foremost, a barrier to protect New Orleans. “We are asking people to live with more of a burden,” he admitted. “But we either do more to push back against the sea, or we lose it. You’re going to have to live with change. You’re going to be displaced.” 

An exhibit on the Morgan City shrimp boom at the nearby Cypress Sawmill Museum featured black-and-white photos and videos of what one day might be known as the great shrimp boom. A video of the Blessing of the Fleet from the 1950s stood out. In one shot, dozens of men with tightly shaved crewcuts parade with the priest down to the water. In another, more than fifty boats make waves in the river, festooned with balloons and streamers and holding hundreds of people aboard. Everyone is smiling. 

Broadsides detailed the history of peeling and deveining shrimp. There were even tanks of live shrimp, though, perhaps tellingly, they were not the breed found in the Atchafalaya River basin. They too, it would seem, were imports. 


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Jeanie Riess is a writer from New Orleans. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, and the New York Times Magazine.

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