Fear over seafood future prompts plea to President Trump

Fear over seafood future prompts plea to President Trump
Parish leaders are concerned about the health of the seafood industry in southeast Louisiana. (Source: WVUE)

ST. BERNARD PARISH, La. (WVUE) - St. Bernard Parish officials are calling for President Donald Trump to come see devastation to the seafood industry, which they said was caused by the opening of the Bonnet Carre Spillway.

In a news conference Tuesday (July 2), officials discussed the devastation from toxic green algae blooms. Some got emotional as they described damage caused by water from the Mississippi River that has been pumping through their fisheries for four months now.

Officials said that often toxic river water is killing oyster reefs and destroying fisheries that were rich with crabs, shrimp and trout. They said the seafood industry is worth $4 billion in Louisiana and the losses touch a large majority of the more than 50,000 people living in the parish.

It is their hope that if the White House comes to see the destruction, something can be done to save the future of an industry that has fueled livelihoods in St. Bernard for generations.

Parish President Guy McGinnis said called St. Bernard an environmental “ground zero."

“The impact of the freshwater inundation has been nothing short of devastating for those who make a living from harvesting Louisiana seafood. The people of our parish are feeling the stressful effects of this natural disaster,” McGinni said.

Fishermen say they are especially concerned that these spillway openings seem to be becoming an annual event. They said they worry that if that continues, the industry may never rebound and are calling for a new plan to manage the Mississippi River.

Jeff Pohlmann, the owner of a local seafood restaurant, said prices for shrimp, crabs and oysters are up by about 25 percent while business is down. Plus, Pohlmann said he worries the effects will be long-lasting.

“I think it’s gonna do more harm than the BP oil spill,” Pohlmann said.

Representative Ray Garofalo, Jr., R-Marrero said oysters are especially at risk of long-term damage, citing a report from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

“Oysters don’t move,” Garofalo said. “Wildlife and Fisheries say it’s gonna a be many years before the oyster industry can recover.”

River water has caused algae to spring up in Lake Pontchartrain, as well as in Lake Borgne and beyond. While scientists have not yet determined whether or not the algae in Lake Pontchartrain is toxic or not, fisherman like Thomas Gonzales said it is wreaking havoc on their catch. And, Gonzales said this issue does beyond economic harm.

“[It’s] destroying the ecosystem,” Gonzales said. “People don’t realize what we had before.”

Senator Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, said the federal government doesn’t seem to get the messages about what’s happening to Louisiana and the livelihood of its residents.

“We just can’t say, ‘Good luck St. Bernard.' We deserve better,” Hewitt said.

Parish officials are calling for national help -- and are calling for it to happen quick.

“We’re hoping that the president comes, or Secretary Ross, who has his finger on those funds,” McInnis said. “They need to come.”

In the meantime, Pohlmann is warning his customers only to eat fully cooked oysters and hoping people realize the magnitude of the destruction.

“Oysters [are] dying and that’s not recovering overnight,” Pohlmann said.

St. Bernard officials said they don’t understand why the Morganza Spillway is not being used to divert fresh water away from the waterways being flooded by runoff from the Bonnet Carree Spillway, which has been open for months.

The Army Corps of Engineers said they are working on finding the best ways to resolve the issue, but their website says the long-range effect of spillway openings are “extremely favorable,” and often bring an increase in seafood production.

Copyright 2019 WVUE. All rights reserved.