Fishing Industry Takes Major Hit from Katrina

Hurricane Katrina devastated the multi-billion-dollar commercial fishing industry in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Boats, ports and processing plants across the area are damaged or destroyed. Waterways are clogged with debris, and sea life also suffered greatly in the huge storm.

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Commercial fishing is a multibillion-dollar industry in the northern Gulf of Mexico and it was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Boats, ports and processing plants across the area are damaged or destroyed. Waterways are clogged with debris. Sea creatures also suffered in the huge storm. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren has this report.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN reporting:

Oysters probably took the biggest hit. John Roussel of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries says Katrina decimated them. And the polluted floodwaters could make it hard for them to recover.

Mr. JOHN ROUSSEL (Department of Wildlife and Fishery): Oysters are unable to move to get out of the way of a storm or move away if there's bad water quality or whatever. In our previous experiences with past hurricanes--Hurricane Ivan or Hurricane Andrew--we have documented mortality levels anywhere from 75 to 100 percent.

SHOGREN: That's because during hurricanes storm surges and high winds churn up the sediment and cover oysters with it.

Mr. ROUSSEL: And it actually smothers them.

SHOGREN: Based on Katrina's size and strength, Roussel estimates that it destroyed 99 percent of the oysters, and that's a lot of oysters--about $300 million worth over two years. The state expects it will take at least that long for the oysters to start coming back. Their recovery will depend on whether Mother Nature, with help from scientists, can restore the reefs that oysters need to grow on. It also will depend on how much pollution has flowed from the flooded areas into the bays and estuaries where oysters make their homes. Again, Roussel.

Mr. ROUSSEL: There's obviously lots of things that potentially are in that water in the city that--when it's pumped out and drained out that may cause other problems, killing organisms or possibly tainting them if there's some kind of contamination in that water. We don't even know what we're dealing from that respect yet.

SHOGREN: Shrimp, crabs and fish probably suffered less from the storm itself because they can move out of the way, but they are vulnerable to he polluted floodwaters. Already the state has noticed some fish kills in rivers and a large swampy lake northwest of New Orleans, Lake Maurepas.

Mr. ROUSSEL: We are seeing some isolated fish kills already, but the significant kills will actually come as this bad water drains off of these lands and traps fish or shrimp.

SHOGREN: Some of the polluted waters are being pumped into Lake Pontchartrain; others are flowing naturally into a variety of waterways. These waters are full of sewage and other biological matter that could cause algae blooms and rob the waterways of the oxygen needed to keep fish and other sea creatures alive. They also contain bacteria that could contaminate seafood and unknown quantities of toxic pollution, lead and mercury and hydrocarbons from oil spills, that could accumulate in fish and shellfish. Many experts believe that the worst pollution will be found in Lake Pontchartrain, which has sport fishing but not commercial fishing. But Cynthia Sarthou of the Gulf Restoration Network, an environmental group based in New Orleans, believes that pollution flowing out of Lake Pontchartrain will harm sea life in estuaries and the Gulf of Mexico.

Ms. CYNTHIA SARTHOU (Gulf Restoration Network): I am expecting that there will be a lot of harmful algae blooms, that there may be in the shallower waters of the Gulf a lot of fish kills.

SHOGREN: Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service say the federal government is concerned, too. The agency is sending researchers by ship and by plane into the hurricane zone to test for contamination and look for stranded dolphins and other aquatic mammals. It's also busy trying to assess the hurricane's impact on coastal swamps and wetlands, which are essential habitat to many of the region's shrimp and fish species. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: And you can find out how to help hurricane victims by going to npr.org.

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