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After 2019 Mississippi River flood, Louisiana fishers might soon see disaster relief

 The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opens the bays of the Bonnet Carre Spillway on Feb. 27, 2019, diverting some of the Mississippi River's flow to release pressure on levees downstream during an unprecedented flood season.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
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The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opens the bays of the Bonnet Carre Spillway on Feb. 27, 2019, diverting some of the Mississippi River's flow to release pressure on levees downstream during an unprecedented flood season.

Louisiana fishers might soon see federal disaster relief more than two years after the unprecedented flooding of 2019 — now considered the longest flood on record — devastated much of the commercial industry.

For more than four months, freshwater was diverted through the Bonnet Carre Spillway to relieve pressure on the levees along the Mississippi River. In that time, the influx of river water killed millions of pounds of oysters and disrupted the balance required for species like shrimp, crab or menhaden to thrive. Fertilizers in the water created pockets of hypoxia, or “dead zones,” and harmful algal blooms.

Distribution of $58 million through several state grant programs could begin as early as June, should the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration approve the spending plan drafted by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

 Pelicans float near the Bonnet Carre Spillway as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers offer an update on the 2020 flood flight on April 3, 2020.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Pelicans float near the Bonnet Carre Spillway as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers offer an update on the 2020 flood flight on April 3, 2020.

Relief for a flood that cost fishers at least $101 million in lost revenue has been slow, delayed after several more disasters struck the industry, including the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020.

It wasn’t until summer of 2020 that state officials learned how much money the industry would receive for the 2019 flood. By then, Froeba said the department had switched gears to help distribute $14.7 million from the CARES Act directly to fishers.

Hurricanes Laura and Ida also dealt their own blows to the fishing industry, destroying docks and ships in their path.

Crabber and shrimper Britney Breaux, who chairs the Louisiana Crab Task Force, works the waters around the Terrebonne and Barataria basins, running from Lake Raccourci and the west of Bayou Lafourche to those around Grand Isle and Caminada Bay.

Those were among the areas worst hit by the plume of freshwater, but that year was just a drop in the bucket of problems Breaux has experienced since.

“We're just rolling with the punches over here, one disaster after another,” she said.

The Department of Wildlife and Fisheries had already estimated that oyster harvesters and shrimpers would see future losses of $165 million solely from the lingering effects of the 2019 flood without the ensuing crises.

 The 2019 Mississippi River Flood left few fisheries untouched. As a whole, the affected fisheries lost more than $101 million in dockside revenue due to the influx of freshwater.
Halle Parker
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WWNO
The 2019 Mississippi River Flood left few fisheries untouched. As a whole, the affected fisheries lost more than $101 million in dockside revenue due to the influx of freshwater.

In the current draft spending plan, most of the $58 million would go toward equipment reimbursement grants and habitat improvements — a move backed by most leaders in the commercial industry. The agency will talk with the Oyster Task Force next Tuesday.

“We think the plan that we put together brought both worlds together, where the fishermen were able to get some funding out of it through this grant program, and we were able to direct that funding to an appropriate use,” Froeba said.

Under the $24 million reimbursement program, fishers could recoup up to $75,000 spent on upgrading their equipment if the purchases occurred after September 2019. New and updated equipment would hopefully increase the industry’s long-term sustainability, allowing them to travel farther, use new fishing methods or improve their facilities.

Another $13 million will fund projects geared toward improving the habitat or hydrology of an area by reducing the impact of freshwater. If awarded, the department would reimburse applicants, ranging from government agencies to businesses or organizations, for 75% of the project cost. There’s also several million dollars allotted to researching low-salinity oysters, improving public oyster seed grounds, charter ship grants and promoting forms of aquaculture.

Froeba said all of the programs are designed to be forward-looking, in an attempt to align with NOAA’s original guidance to create a more resilient fishing industry. Recently, though, the federal agency said it would allow direct payments to fishers harmed by the floods, changing its stance.

Several fishers had voiced their support for direct payments during a public comment period on the draft plan last June, but, so far, leaders in the crab and shrimp industry have asked for the state to keep the plan the same after presentations to their respective task forces this week.

The state provided options for how a direct payment program could work in place of the equipment reimbursement program, including one that would spread that money over about 1,500 fishers and distribute according to the size of their loss. On average, most fishers would receive $3,000 to $5,000 under that program.

Mitch Jurisich holds two dead oysters on a boat in Empire, LA during the summer of 2019. Healthy oyster shells are typically brownish in color, but these, Jurisich says, have been blackened by prolonged exposure to freshwater. Months of flooding from the Mississippi River caused massive oyster die-offs in both Louisiana and Mississippi from the spring through the fall.
Travis Lux
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WWNO
Mitch Jurisich holds two dead oysters on a boat in Empire, LA during the summer of 2019. Healthy oyster shells are typically brownish in color, but these, Jurisich says, have been blackened by prolonged exposure to freshwater. Months of flooding from the Mississippi River caused massive oyster die-offs in both Louisiana and Mississippi from the spring through the fall.

Breaux and others feared direct payments would reward those in the industry who chose to stay home rather than continue to try working in difficult conditions. She said she hoped the plan would remain the same and give money to fishers actively investing in their business.

“If you can't find receipts to show that you put money back into your business, you probably were going out of business. You probably were not even fishing anymore,” Breaux said.

With increasingly frequent Bonnet Carre Spillway openings and more extreme weather due to climate change, Froeba said the agency is also concerned about how continued disasters and relief will affect the industry, possibly disincentivizing fishers from making it on their own. But a final decision won’t come until after the state speaks with each industry.

“We want the industry to thrive, we don't want to create an industry that sits around and waits to receive disaster systems payments,” he said. “So, we hope that our programs eventually push those folks that are doing that work to continue to do it, and we’re not incentivizing anyone not to work.”
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