Old Shrimping Tradition Fades On Louisiana's Troubled Coast
GOLDEN MEADOW, La. (AP) — A parade of decorated shrimp trawlers and other assorted boats amble down Bayou Lafourche on a sunny spring day. Flags and banners flap in the rigging, portable speakers blare country music, and back-deck partiers dig into plates of crawfish and sausage. At the head of the procession, on the bow of the lead boat, a smiling priest in full vestments casts blessings left and right.
Just about everybody in the parade slows when they pass John "Winnie" Wunstell and his 68-foot-long trawler, the biggest in town. They set down their drinks, step away from their grills and yell across the bayou, ribbing him, as they do every year, for skipping out on the Blessing of the Fleet.
The annual event - a blend of Catholic ritual and floating party - marks the start of shrimping season in several south Louisiana communities. But Wunstell and many other shrimpers don't mark it anymore. Most of the shrimp boats on this stretch of bayou between Galliano and Golden Meadow, nearly 80 miles south of New Orleans, remain tied up for Golden Meadow's 102nd fleet blessing. The same is true elsewhere along the coast. Some communities no longer hold the event.
A handful of shrimping villages - Chauvin, Dulac, Pointe-aux-Chenes - try to keep the religious tradition alive, albeit in the face of a much-diminished shrimping industry, declining populations and a rapidly eroding coastline.
"In the olden days, this was a big thing - all the boats on the bayou," Wunstell said while waving politely at the smattering of boats Golden Meadow was able to muster for its April 15 blessing. In the 1980s, the event drew 40 boats, all of them working trawlers. This year, only 14 showed up.
"All these people, they got jobs now," Wunstell said.
By "jobs" he means other than catching shrimp. Many work in the oil industry now. Some shrimp part time, or they maintain their father's or grandfather's wood-hulled trawlers, treating them as floating family heirlooms.
"For us, it's full-time," Wunstell said of shrimping, as he nodded at his wife, Kelly. "And all that," he said of the blessing, "we don't have time for."
Wunstell spent the blessing fretting about the rising cost of fuel and the shrinking value of his catch. He worries about his swollen feet, which pain him when he stands for too long. He worries about hiring dependable deckhands - not an easy task, he said, when many in the labor pool have drug and alcohol problems or would simply prefer easier work onshore.
Shrimping has always been hard. Through the 1800s and a good part of the last century, it was downright deadly. Boats were smaller, engines weaker, and weather forecasting was mostly guesswork. Little wooden shrimp boats would chug out to sea under cloudless skies and, within a few hours, be plunged to the sea bottom by a sudden storm. Drowning was a common killer, as were fires, explosions and maimings from errant winches, hooks and pulleys.
It was enough to seek protection from a higher power. That's how the Blessing of the Fleet tradition began more than a century ago.
"They were asking, first of all, to be safe," said Frederic Brunet, a retired priest who led the town of Chauvin's blessing for 42 years. "They would want that boat to stay safe and sound. The next thing they would want is a blessing to catch some shrimp and be able to support their families."
Brunet remembers blessing 110 vessels one year in the late 1970s. This year, the turnout at Chauvin's April 8 blessing was fewer than 20.
"If we get 10 to 15 boats, it's good," Debra Cunningham, 72, said while watching Chauvin's blessing. "Now nobody has the time or money to decorate anymore. And the old people with boats, like my daddy, have died off."
In the past, shrimpers and their families would spend days decorating their boats with hundreds of ribbons, palmetto fronds, papier-mâché sculptures, plywood crosses and painted signs honoring Catholic saints. There were rival shrimpers to out-do and crowds to impress.
Costumes were common at the Golden Meadow blessing. The Knights of Columbus would turn out with big hats topped with purple feathers. The event's man of honor would dress as a naval admiral.
"It was the one thing people'd wait for," said Miranda Griffin, a lifelong Golden Meadow resident. "It's what we had."
"And now every year we worry it isn't going to happen," her husband, Robert, added.
Chauvin's festivities in the 1970s and early '80s went from early morning to late night.
"After morning mass, we'd have the parade out to Lake Boudreaux and all the boats would gather there," Brunet said. "A lot of them had bands, so there'd be dancing, people eating crawfish and every other thing. I'd go boat to boat receiving people and eat a little bit at every boat. Then we'd come back and have a big dance at night. They were glorious times."
Chauvin's blessing this year drew a few dozen people to a small park on Bayou Petit Caillou. A Cajun folk band played, a woodworker sold toy pirogues, a family with a food cart sold crab cakes. The boats came and went in less than 30 minutes, and the crowd quietly trickled away.
There's disagreement over whether partying harmed the tradition.
"In the beginning, people would kneel and make the sign of the cross when the priest came by," Brunet said. "Now they hold up their beer can, toast-like."
For Wunstell, the church became overly-involved in Golden Meadow's blessing, shutting down what was known as the Bull Club Fair, a carnival with lots of eating, drinking and dancing. The church also banned alcohol and required applications to participate in the parade.
"They don't communicate with the shrimpers," Wuntsell said. "Now it's (organized) by people at the church who don't have anything to do with boats."
Organizers of the parade did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Also chipping away at the tradition: liability. Many shrimpers say their insurance limits who can board their vessels. Rowdy on-board parties can easily produce legal headaches, even lawsuits.
At its heart, the Blessing of the Fleet is a tradition rooted in an industry, and that industry has been in sharp decline for decades.
Louisiana remains the top shrimp producer in the U.S., capturing more than 100 million pounds annually. Yet, the vast majority of the shrimp eaten in the U.S. - a whopping 90 percent - is imported. Much of it comes from farms in Southeast Asia and Latin America. It's produced cheaply and at high volumes. Louisiana shrimpers, who venture into the Gulf to catch wild shrimp, simply can't compete.
"There's no good price for shrimp, and sometimes there's no catch," said Robert Griffin, a retired Golden Meadow oil worker who shrimped in his youth. "But the problem is the overseas shrimp."
World shrimp prices went into free-fall about 30 years ago. In the 1990s, Gulf shrimp could fetch up to $4.50 per pound. Now shrimpers are lucky to get $1.50.
"It's getting worse," Wunstell said. "I just had this little guy call me all excited to get 75 cents per pound. We're getting played."
Fisheries regulations are tighter than they used to be. Fuel costs are higher, and deckhands and shrimp processing workers are in short supply.
Environmental changes are making shrimp harder to come by. Erosion and the sinking of the coastal landscape robs Louisiana of a football field worth of wetland every 100 minutes. With this loss goes critical shrimp habitat. Brown shrimp - the catch of inland shrimpers in Barataria, Terrebonne and other bays - depend on coastal estuaries. As these marshy environments fragment and dissolve, brown shrimp survival plummets.
A decade of disasters - both natural and human-made - took a heavy toll on the coast's shrimping communities. Between 2000 and 2010, the coast was battered by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Ike and Isaac, and poisoned by the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Populations had been sinking for years, but they plummeted after the spill and spate of hurricanes. The Golden Meadow-Galliano area lost 7 percent of its residents between 2005 and 2015, according to Louisiana's Strategic Adaptions for Future Environments (LA SAFE). Chauvin and the nearby shrimping port of Cocodrie lost 17 percent. Other small coastal communities, including Dulac, Jean Lafitte and Buras, have also seen double-digit population declines in recent years.
The employment numbers are even worse, with jobs decreasing in Chauvin, Cocodrie and other towns by as much as 50 percent between 2004 and 2014, according to LA SAFE.
The blessing tradition has changed to compensate for waning participation. In Golden Meadow and Chauvin, it had been held in August but was moved to May because several boats were staying out at sea longer, sometimes well into August.
Other blessing events have managed to grow by targeting tourists. Chauvin, Golden Meadow, Dulac and Point-aux-Chien do little to promote their blessing beyond their own communities. But Morgan City and Biloxi, Miss., have strategically moved their blessing to holiday weekends.
The Morgan City event, rebranded the Shrimp and Petroleum Festival in the late 1960s, is one of Louisiana's largest free festivals, drawing upwards of 125,000 people during the Labor Day weekend. It features dozens of food and craft vendors spread across four city blocks, fireworks and continuous live music. The festival has paid staff, its own offices and is run much like a business enterprise. Of the 170 vendors at the 2012 festival, only 10 percent came from Morgan City and neighboring towns.
The festival embraces the oil industry, which displaced shrimping as the city's main employer in the 1950s. The same shift has happened in other shrimping communities, but the oil industry hasn't taken the same hold on the coast's cultural identity.
"Shrimping has these iconic boats, and they're bringing back something you can share and eat with your community," said Audriana Hubbard, an anthropologist who wrote her master's thesis on the Gulf's fleet blessing traditions. "How do you share oil? Oil tug boats aren't pretty or clean. Nobody decorates them. There's no season for oil, no imagery or symbolism."
In the past, the Morgan City festival boat parade started with a symbolic touching or "kissing" of bows between a shrimp trawler and a tugboat working in the oil industry. But with so few shrimpers left, the kissing is now usually between two tugboats.
In Golden Meadow and other coastal towns, they're sticking as close to tradition as possible, for better or worse.
Robert Griffin, the retired Golden Meadow oil worker, comes from a long line of shrimpers. He gave up on the shrimping life in his youth, but not the shrimping identity.
"It's who we are," he said. "The boat blessing is going to stay, even if it's just down to one boat."
- by Tristan Baurick, The Times-Picayune reporter