Katrina-Hit Oyster Industry Expects Heavy Losses

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The oyster industry was particularly hard hit by Hurricane Katrina, and losses will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars over the next few years. Liane Hansen speaks with Mike Voisin of Motivatit Seafoods in Houma, La.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Oil and natural gas are the most precious natural resources that are extracted from the Gulf of Mexico, but they're hardly the only wealth that comes from the Gulf floor. Approximately 40 percent of the oysters consumed by Americans come from Louisiana. Mike Voisin is CEO of Motivatit Seafoods in Houma, Louisiana. It's a family-run business since 1971, and Mike is a seventh-generation fisherman. His family's fishing credentials date back to when the first Voisin arrived in America from France in the 1770s. Mike Voisin spoke with us earlier this weekend from his office and gave this estimate of the impact of Hurricane Katrina on the oyster business along the Gulf Coast.

Mr. MIKE VOISIN (Motivatit Seafoods): About two-thirds of the Louisiana oyster harvest has been either significantly or catastrophically impacted. Almost a hundred percent of the Mississippi oyster production has been catastrophically impacted, and parts of the Alabama harvest have been impacted as well. The total economic impact will reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars, in the neighborhood of 5 to 600 million over a two- to three-year period. The infrastructure loss is probably more in the neighborhood of a billion dollars when you talk about vessels that are up on roads, that are on levees, on dry land 200 feet from the shore, dock facilities that have been torn out, shellfish-producing beds that have been turned over and covered with mud. The need to recover all of those things--you're talking in the billions rather than in the millions at this point.

HANSEN: What are you doing right now to rebuild your own business?

Mr. VOISIN: Well, what we're doing, of course, is letting people know that Louisiana isn't totally closed. You know, our glass is one-third full, and we're still producing. We want people to know that. It's a safe product because it's a hundred miles from the New Orleans area. We're also, at this time, bringing the industry members together. We're asking Congress for help in recovery and rebuilding, and I will say to you that we will once again thrive. The South, the Southern oyster community will thrive again. You know, Henry Ford said that adversity creates character, and we're building a whole lot of character down here.

HANSEN: Now there is contamination in the Gulf Coast waters after Katrina. How much of a problem will that be for those who harvest oysters?

Mr. VOISIN: In the impacted area, again, about two-thirds of Louisiana, we see that as a real concern, and the state Health Department, who I've been in communications with, the state Wildlife Department, who I've been in communications with, are monitoring that aggressively. All of those areas are closed that have any potential for impact. We began a very aggressive sampling routine to see what the challenges are, and then how can we identify times and abilities to reopen those areas? We're not looking for a short term. Normally that will happen within a three- to four-week period after a hurricane. We may be looking at three to four months, we may be looking at six months to a year before the waters can be reopened. Then we have to go back out there, recover, rebuild, reseed and build our oyster farming community again.

HANSEN: How did you and your family make out?

Mr. VOISIN: My family and I are fine. We've been blessed to all be alive. Contacting members of the shellfish community, at this point I've identified just about everybody that is OK. We still have one or two and we don't leave much hope for them at this point.

HANSEN: You and your family have been in this industry--you've been fishing for generations. Do you have any doubt at all about rebuilding at this point?

Mr. VOISIN: I have absolutely no doubt that we will recover and we will be again leaders in production. Even with this, we still may lead the country in production of oysters because we still have a third of a cup left.

HANSEN: You sound pretty tough and pretty tenacious.

Mr. VOISIN: You have to look to the future. The future beholds us all. I have grandchildren that I hope one day will do the things that my family does, and I hope that their grandchildren could do the same thing.

HANSEN: Mike Voisin is CEO of Motivatit Seafoods in Houma, Louisiana. Thanks so much and the best of luck to you.

Mr. VOISIN: Thank you.

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