Our Indonesian and Korean guests took a tour of Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana’s southernmost parish. On the map, this area is the “birds foot” or toe of the state, a long finger of land where the Mississippi River splays out into the Gulf of Mexico. Highway 23 runs parallel to the levees that run parallel to the marshes on the west and the river on the east. The entire area is below sea level and water flow is highly controlled (actively pumped); after Hurricane Katrina the area was flooded by 14-24 feet of water. Evidence can be seen in the form of vacant lots, empty slabs, the skeletons of oak trees killed by salt water, and rebuilt homes and trailers, many on stilts.
Today, petroleum and fisheries remain the major industries, along with citrus, cattle, shipping, and recreation. To the south, the area is also acting as the base for response activity related to the BP oil disaster.
Our destination was the Daybrook menhaden fish processing plant in Empire. The plant produces fish meal and pharmaceutical-grade fish oil. The menhaden fishery is the reason why this area is second only to Dutch Harbor, Alaska, in tonnage of fish landed. The fishery is considered sustainable and certified by Friend of the Sea.
During and after the hurricane, Daybrook lost nine buildings in addition to power, water, food, and housing. Plant workers came together immediately to rebuild, acting as a parish command center with generators making power, planes flying in food, a 24-hour cafeteria to feed 300 people, temporary housing, etc. It was a self-contained city. Daybrook (without help from any government) had to rebuild, replacing wiring and structures, but re-using some equipment. The new facility has more concrete and more advanced controls including remote monitoring.
The 2010 menhaden season began on April 19. The very next day the Deepwater Horizon exploded. Daybrook’s 43 fishing vessels had to travel 20 hours farther west to fish in open waters; 23,000 square miles of the Gulf remain closed and the harvest is down about 40 percent. Daybrook is one of four menhaden plants along the Louisiana Coast and it was the closest to BP’s broken oil well. To date, no contamination problems have been detected but the future of the harvest is uncertain. No one knows what’s going to happen to the eggs and juvenile menhaden that become the catch in 2011, 2012, and 2013.
On the way back from touring the plant, we stopped at a boatyard to view the boat lift that was generated by the Port of Valdez, Alaska to help with the recovery effort after Katrina. The lift was needed to get boats back in the water and working again; Sea Grant extension associate Rusty Gaudet put out an inquiry to the Sea Grant network and Eric Olson of Washington knew that a lift was for sale in Alaska and contacted AK Sea Grant who helped secure the lift and raise the funds to transport it to Louisiana.