By Manan Bhavnani
EMPIRE, La. — Mitch Jurisich still remembers growing up on Louisiana’s water and going fishing and shrimping with his father as a kid. “It was a wonderful life, something I wish I could show my grandkids… but it doesn’t exist anymore like that,” he said.
Jurisich, 58, is a third-generation oyster farmer from Plaquemines Parish whose family moved to the United States in the 1900s from Croatia, which was a part of Yugoslavia at the time. While his grandfather started the family business, his son and nephew harvest oysters these days. Jurisich and his brother handle the management side of the business.
Jurisich, who serves as the chairman of the Louisiana Oyster Task Force, has been vocal about the state and federal government approach to environmental policy.
“As fishermen, as oyster farmers, we evolve with our coast, we grow with our coast, we learn from our coast,” he said. Jurisich added he wants greater collaboration between the government and the seafood community in the decisions that affect them.
Westwego, a city located about 12 miles southwest of New Orleans, hosts a sprawling seafood market. After first opening in 1977, the Westwego Shrimp Lot has catered to people from all over Louisiana as well as tourists making the short trip from New Orleans.
A city of just over 8,000 people, Westwego is tied to the town of Grand Isle, over 90 miles away. In the aftermath of the Cheniere Caminada hurricane in 1893, several families left Grand Isle before finding shelter in Westwego.
Capt. James Camardelle’s family moved to Westwego when it was first built in the late 19th century. Camardelle, 75, who was born and grew up in Westwego, reminisces how it was in the 1950s.
“When I was a kid growing up, I remember shrimp boats all over the place.” With a booming seafood industry at the time, the village of Westwego gradually became a city by the 1950s as the population grew, he said. Previously a fisherman’s community, it “has changed a whole lot” since he was a child, Camardelle said.
With Hurricane Ida devastating Grand Isle and Louisiana last year, people have been calling for more federal support in rebuilding. However, with inadequate government assistance, people are often left to fend for themselves. In a situation like this, local communities are an essential safety net.
Westwego historian Loretta Persohn-Brehm recognizes this. “Everybody helps each other out, that’s how we survive,” she said.
In February, several of the stalls at the Westwego Shrimp Lot were closed. With the shrimping season on the horizon, that might soon change.
Meanwhile, for the vendors that were open, customers were bustling in and out of stores, with some buying 20 pounds of shrimp. Others went with a few pounds of blue crab.
Despite the activity, vendors at the market said they are facing challenges. For one, the pandemic has greatly reduced the demand for seafood. As a result, people are having to choose between maintaining inventory and adding food to their stock.
Hurricane Ida exacerbated those pressures. According to a recent report, four hurricanes in the last two years have cost the fishing industry upward of $570 million in lost revenue.
Until just a few years ago, Jurisich used to sell his catch at the Westwego Shrimp Lot. However, following the demise of the vendor he sold to, he does not do business there anymore.
On March 22, a tornado hit Louisiana, traveling nearly 11.5 miles from Gretna in Jefferson Parish to Arabi in St. Bernard Parish and beyond. The tornado killed at least one individual, with Gov. John Bel Edwards declaring an emergency in four parishes.
From natural disasters to the ongoing pandemic, the future of Louisiana’s fishing and seafood communities remains unclear. Despite that, “we don’t give up. We get back at it, we live to fight another day,” Jurisich said.