By Andrew Taylor
The shrimpers, fishing captains and oystermen along the Gulf Coast seem like the forgotten ones as the government funnels aid to a region devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Even their own governors have higher priorities.
Very little of the $68 billion appropriated has found its way to the watermen of the Gulf or to rebuild onshore facilities. Massive amounts of debris make shrimping dangerous in many areas. Oysterbeds are ruined by silt.
As the Senate prepares to debate the latest Katrina aid bill, the watermen of Louisiana and Mississippi are pinning their hopes on an ambitious $1.1 billion aid plan by Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The measure includes:
$300 million to rebuild destroyed marinas, piers, docks, wharves and warehouses that support the commercial and recreational fishing industry.
$300 million to help replace fishing equipment and infrastructure, including icehouses and processing facilities.
$100 million to help fishermen and seafood workers clean up and repair damaged facilities.
$100 million to pay for the rehabilitation of oyster beds and shrimp grounds.
Govs. Haley Barbour, R-Miss., and Kathleen Blanco, D-La., have focused on getting money for housing, levees and rebuilding facilities such as shipyards, military facilities and Coast Guard bases.
Alabama had significantly less damage from last year's storms than did those two states. But Bayou La Batre, which bills itself as the seafood capital of Alabama, did suffer a big blow.
That may explain Shelby's focus on fisheries. The Senate committee this month approved a $106.5 billion measure that combines $27.1 billion in aid for hurricane victims with $72.4 billion for the war in Iraq and other terrorism-fighting efforts.
Shelby's plan won approval by the committee with a voice vote and minimal debate, but faces an uncertain future. The White House did not request the fisheries money when submitting its $19.8 billion relief plan in February.
The administration will make its views known when the bill reaches the full Senate on April 25. The White House is more likely to take aim at $4 billion in emergency aid to farmers that the committee added to Bush's request than it is to the fisheries provision.
Conservatives in the House are pushing to keep the bill's total cost to Bush's request; few, if any, believe Shelby will emerge from House-Senate negotiations with the full $1.1 billion.
"If it's half that it's still a heck of a lot of money," said Bill Walker, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources.
The fisheries aid is competing with add-ons such as money for education and port security, as well as the disaster aid for farmers. All were added to a measure drafted by the committee chairman, Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss.
Cochran had included $30 million for mapping the extent of underwater debris as a step toward making fishing grounds safe. An additional $15 million would go to rehabilitating oyster beds, most of which were destroyed by Katrina.
Katrina "covered the reef up (with silt) on the way in and gouged it out on the way out," Walker said.
Even before the hurricane, the industry hardly was thriving. Imports of shrimp from Asia had lowered prices to the point where most shrimpers were just getting by, said Karen Foote, administrator of the Fisheries Division at the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
The value of commercial harvest upon first sale what is paid to watermen for their catch in the areas hit by hurricanes Katrina and Rita was about $600 million. The total impact on the economy is much greater.
Infrastructure such as icehouses, processing plants, wharves and marinas took a devastating blow. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates losses of $330 million in capital infrastructure throughout the Gulf.
It is not known how many boats were sunk of destroyed; the Coast Guard puts it at as many as 5,000.
Foote said most shrimpers could not afford insurance for their boats and that many processors and other onshore facilities were underinsured.
"Nothing's been done on the federal level to address the loss of "infrastructure," Foote said.
Ironically, the fishery save for oyster beds is thriving. Since fewer boats are on the water, the Gulf is teeming with fish and shrimp.
"If we can get the infrastructure up and running, there's stuff to catch," said Steve Murawski, chief fisheries scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.