Shrimp boats large and small – along with other craft – will ply the waters of some local bayous this weekend, seeking sacred protection as they prepare for a new season that will start next month.
Pennants, posters and priests on the prows of lead vessels at annual boat parades in Chauvin and Dulac are the outward signs of inward faith local shrimping families will profess, as they receive blessings on themselves, their vessels and equipment.
But behind the scenes, perhaps now more effectively than ever before, movement in government circles close to home and far away in the nation's capital is providing new hope for an industry on the ropes for decades, a victim of U.S. trade practices and government inefficiency.
The focus this weekend, however, will be on the positive when boats begin moving south om Bayou Petit Caillou in Chauvin, where the boat blessing begins on La. 56 across from St, Joseph's Roman Catholic Church, and in Dulac on La. 57 across from Holy Family Church. Both events are scheduled for Sunday.
Once largely ignored but now moving more prominently onto the government radar screen, the U.S. shrimp industry is cutting a higher profile, its complaints gaining greater attention and in some cases direct action.
• A new state bill filed by a local legislature would require restaurants to state their use of overseas shrimp on menus.
• At the start of this year, shrimp imports became covered under the U.S. Seafood Import Monitoring Program, which helps the government more effectively address cases where banned antibiotics, slave labor and environmental regulations place another nation's product under more watchful eyes and expanded tests.
• Both of Louisiana's U.S. senators have brought grievances of shrimpers to Washington, focusing greater attention on their concerns.
These developments, local shrimpers generally agree, offer proof that their efforts to address import issues are gaining some traction but not enough. In addition to the eco
nomic issues related to global trade, more traditional problems faced by fishermen for millennia also come into account. Temperature and tide have strong effects on the viability of a shrimp crop.
Of immediate concern to local shrimping families is how weather and other climate issues will affect this year's crop of shrimp, and whether sizes of shrimp due to those conditions will require later openings of Louisiana's in-shore season. The Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission usually sets dates for May for openings of the state's three shrimping zones. In recent years, scientists who put forth their opinions on when seasons should open have spoken of future early openings because waters are warming up more quickly. This year, however, a strong potential for late openings looms.
Chauvin boat and dock owner Angela Portier said that the state's shrimp task force, at its most recent meeting, was told that cold waters pouring into the Gulf region from the Mississippi River and the ecosystems that feed into it may be keeping shrimp small for the time being.
"They told us they tested last week and the average size was 136-count," she said, referring to a presentation made by state biologists. A count of 136 means test trawls retrieved shrimp numbering about 136 to the pound, too small for an early season opening, at least for now. While Portier and others in the industry are happy to receive support from elected officials, they also say the economic pressures have not abated.
"We are definitely not seeing benefits," Portier said. "Prices have never changed and factories say sales are stagnant."
Nonetheless there appears to be more discussion than in the past in public forums of problems shrimpers have long pointed to as contrary to their interests.
Shrimpers have for nearly 20 years been waging a battle against unfair trade practices that push dockside prices so low fishermen have difficulty making a profit. But recently their woes have been echoing in the halls of Congress.
Last month Sen. Bill Cassidy R-La raised shrimp questions to the U.S. Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer, during a hearing on tariffs and trade.
While the focus of unfair trade complaints has largely been on nations such as Thailand and China, Cassidy brought up a different competitor, India.
The European Union has placed tough restrictions on Indian shrimp imports, largely due to sanitary issues and the use of antibiotics that the EU has banned. Cassidy said that has resulted in Indian shrimp being dumped into American markets, further harming the domestic industry.
"Now if it was fair trade, that would be fine, but they subsidize it, as you know, they subsidize their aquaculture, and so that subsidy with the restrictions ends up disadvantaging our folks disproportionately," Cassidy said of India. "I will note, if EU finds their shrimp unsanitary, I'm a little reluctant to have that shrimp in our state for health reasons."
Cassidy pointed out that India's status as a nation enjoying trade preferences under a U.S. program has ended, asking if that should not mean the U.S. can pursue tariffs or other restrictions on its shrimp.
Lighthizer responded by noting the trade laws that allow U.S. industries to sue for tariffs where injury can be proven along with other requirements.
On the sanitary issue, Lighthizer expressed a willingness to discuss that matter with the Department of Agriculture. Once considered a mask for protectionism by industry critics, the health issues concerning shrimp raised in overseas aquaculture operations have gained more mainstream status. Among the concerns expressed by health advocates is the potential that over-use of antibiotics in imported shrimp can contribute to the prevalence of anti-biotic resistant germs. It's something shrimpers have banged the drum about over more than two decades, when the issue was first raised in Louisiana by the late A.J. Fabre, a Lafitte shrimper who was a founding member of the Louisiana Shrimp Association.
Trade actions were brought against imports from nations accused of dumping their shrimp into the U.S. illegally, killing all potential competition in terms of price by domestic industry. The Southern Shrimp Alliance, representing shrimping interests in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas, was credited with pushing the 2004 trade action that got the ball rolling, funded by dollars from processors and the shrimpers themselves.
SSA spokeswoman Deborah Long said that progress is evident in some sectors of government. In January shrimp imports were officially folded into the U.S. Seafood Import Monitoring Program, the result of hard lobbying by SSA and local shrimpers.
"Three years ago, the United States government recognized shrimp imports to be 'at risk' for illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing and seafood fraud, placing imported shrimp on a list of species to inform the development of a traceability program to be implemented regarding seafood sold in the U.S. market," Long said. "There was a failed lawsuit by the National Fisheries Institute, representing seafood importers, to prevent the law from going into effect. Domestic importers and large lobbying interests like the National Restaurant Association, had a stay imposed on the implementation of the law with regards to shrimp and albacore. The rejection from the traceability program left a gap in effectiveness, as shrimp is our nation's largest seafood import with over $6 billion in shrimp products imported in 2017."
Now that has changed, and shrimpers can monitor the program to see if it makes a bottom-line difference.
Long and other industry advocates said the dialogue between Cassidy and the U.S. Trade Rep was significant as regards India.
"India is going to be a big focus because it is such a major player in the market," Long said. The EU audits India for antibiotics, she noted, and the nation continually has problems.
At the state level, State Rep. Truck Gisclair's HB 335, if passed, will create a new law titled RS 40:5.5.4 which will require food establishments in Louisiana that serve crawfish or shrimp which originate outside the U.S. to inform patrons. The Louisiana Department of Health would enforce the law, which will require restaurants and other establishments to provide shrimp and crawfish origin information on their menus, or if they don't have menus to have the information conspicuously posted.
The law is based in part on Louisiana's 2009 official recognition of health issues posed by antibiotic use in shrimp and crawfish.
"This state recognizes that serious risks to public health may be posed by antibiotics, radiation and numerous toxins found in seafood products ... that originate outside the United States," the legislative act recognizing the dangers reads. "It remains the intent of the legislature to protect Louisiana consumers from potentially harmful chemicals and residues that are imported from foreign countries ... Therefore the legislature declares that Louisiana consumers have the right to know if crawfish or shrimp imported from a foreign country is being served."
Gisclair said the gist of his bill is simple and straightforward.
"It's getting to the point we are going to address this antibiotic problem in America and the confusion of people sitting in a south Louisiana restaurant expecting fresh Gulf of Mexico seafood," Gisclair said. "All we are trying to do is let the people know what they are putting in their bodies, whether it is domestic or it is coming from somewhere else. If I am eating crawfish etoufee it is either from Louisiana or it is important and I will know what I need to know before I order, to have it straight."
Assigned to the legislature's health and welfare committee, Gisclair's bill could draw serious opposition. The Louisiana Restaurant Association is seen by supporters of Gisclair's bill as being a potential opponent, though the organization has not yet taken a public stance.
Gisclair said he is aware that some establishments, particularly high-priced restaurants with menus that cost a lot to produce, are not eager to make changes. But he is confident that the issue at hand could push it into passage.
SSA's Deborah Long said that regardless of what happens in state houses or the nation's capital, what fishermen are most concerned about it the ability to fish. Various domestic regulations enacted in the 1990s, Long said, increased costs to fishermen, making them especially vulnerable to what she referred to as laissez faire trade policies reduced costs to importers.
"When the shrimp industry found the U.S. market overrun with cheap Chinese shrimp, there were protests, marches and lots of anger," Long recalled. "There was not a solution.
"Sixteen years later, the ability of shrimp fishermen and processors to organize and act against dumped shrimp imports have fundamentally transformed the U.S. shrimp industry,:" she said, expressing faith in the industry's future. "By speaking with a unified voice, the industry is shaping the legislation and policies that effect their way of life according to the Southern Shrimp Alliance."
Last year the SSA advocated for exemption of shrimpers from a new federal permit requirement. Long said another sign of progress is the additional money authorized by congress for the FDA to test foreign shrimp for antibiotics.
"Shrimpers' problems are not solved and a troubling number of fishermen continue to struggle," Long said. "But, shrimpers are no longer simply leaves blown around wherever the wind chooses to take them. Instead, they are a bit more like the stars that fill the sky over our offshore trawlers, following their own path."
The sheriff who has served Terrebonne parish for the 26 of the past 30 years said Saturday that he will not seek a new term of office.
Sheriff Jerry Joseph Larpenter's announcement came amid rampant speculation that he would not seek re-election. So far three candidates have formally announced their intentions to seek the office, and announcements from at least two other candidates are expected this coming week.
"It is time for me to enjoy fully my family, that being my wife, Priscilla, our children, and now our grandchildren," Larpenter said. "Although I shall not be seeking re-election, I wish to assure all people in Terrebonne Parish that I shall continue providing the type of service our citizens have come to expect, and which they so rightfully deserve, from now through the end of my term in June of 2020."
Often outspoken and always colorfully quotable, Larpenter began his law enforcement career as a road patrol deputy in 1976 under the late Sheriff Charlton P. Rozands, after four years of military police service to the Air Force. Larpenter was appointed chief deputy by Rozands in 1987, the year of Rozands death, and finished out the sheriff's unexpired term as his designated successor. Larpenter won election on his own later that year for the term and then had to run again to keep it. Another election was required for Larpenter to hold the seat totally on his own, and he was successful in every election through the term that ended in 2007. He left the Sheriff's Office at that time to run for Terrebonne Parish president.
Larpenter's successor, Vernon Bourgeois, did not seek another term in 2012 and Larpenter ran unopposed, reclaiming the seat for that and one more term, which is now coming to a close.
A registered Republican who sees good and evil in unabashedly stark terms, Larpenter has sermonized on both, with
the vigor and energy of a Chautauqua Tent preacher.
Despite his personal popularity as sheriff, Larpenter was unable to win voter approval last year for a 1/2 sales tax to shore up escalating budget woes at his office, which also carried the promise of a uniformed resource officer in all Terrebonne Parish schools, something critics said was the writing on the wall that foreshadowed Saturday's announcement.
Larpenter's closest associates, however, have said he was already mulling the potential of not running before the tax issue surfaced. At that time Larpenter had landed in a different controversy, related to a Houma blogger and her city police officer husband. The "ExposeDat" webpage and related Facebook page contained accusations of corruption against Larpenter concerning his wife's involvement in an insurance business as well as Parish President Gordon Dove, and insurance broker Anthony Alford.
On the basis of a criminal defamation complaint filed by Alford, Larpenter's detectives executed search warrants at the home of Jennifer and Wayne Anderson that were signed by District Judge Randall Bethancourt, seizing electronic equipment allegedly connected to the blog.
The judge's authorization was overturned by an appeals court and no criminal charges against the Andersons nor anyone else resulted. Larpenter was accused of heavy-handed tactics and was sued, as was Dove. In separate agreements Dove and Larpenter settled with the Andersons, admitting no guilt of the torts alleged.
But in the court of public opinion Larpenter suffered.
Houma attorney William F. Dodd has represented Larpenter's office throughout the sheriff's tenure, and says he has never doubted that in every matter he knows of, Larpenter's decisions were based on what he believed was the best thing for the sheriff's office and the people of the parish.
"I have never represented anyone I believe was as honest in his beliefs, whatever the lawsuit or the case was," Dodd said. "He is an unbelievable client to represent in terms of honesty and decency, a client who knew as much about a case as the lawyers did. He was not one that did not look into everything that happened with regard to the Sheriff's office. He knew it, he stayed on top of it and it is a pleasure to work for him. I don't think there will ever be another sheriff like him. If someone had done wrong he could work with them to resolve the issue, he would never throw anyone under the bus. He has always been first a law enforcement officer, never a politician."
Jerome Boykin, long-time president of the Terrebonne Parish NAACP, said that while the two didn't always agree, he always felt that Larpenter dealt with him fairly.
"I like his straight-forwardness," Boykins said. "He has always been a straight shooter. When he tells you something you can take it to the bank. He was fair in situations with the community. He would tell you what he thought, not what he thought you wanted to hear, like most politicians. I can honestly say I am going to miss him as sheriff."
In his statement Larpenter acknowledged the contribution Rozands played in his career, and thanked citizens of the parish for their support over the years.
"During that time, I have always tried my best to do what I believed to be in the best interest of the people of this parish and of course, the Sheriff's Office," Larpenter said, reviewing the accomplishments he is proudest of and which he maintains built a legacy in which he and others can take great pride.
Among the firsts Larpenter cited under his administration are the full-time narcotics unit, full-time water patrol, and a full-time training academy with accredited certification.
"I was also able to build a firing range for our officers and SWAT training to coincide with the training academy," Larpenter said. "I fully moved the Sheriff's Office forward with a full-time K-9 team, state of the art communications systems, body cameras and bullet proof vests for out officers."
Larpenter was instrumental in helping prior parish government administrations to build and maintain the parish's jail, which has recently undergone renovation. Throughout his career, he has perhaps been proudest of the implementation of inmates for clean-up, painting and maintenance of public buildings and grounds both for government and private non-profit agencies. He has spoken of millions of dollars saved on behalf of local government; This past year, because of the department's budget crisis, Larpenter reluctantly asked the Terrebonne Parish Consolidated Government to kick in for the cost of trash pickup, especially during Carnival, as well as the salaries of corrections officers who nearly were laid off their jobs.
"Although our parish suffered through economic times in the past as well as presently during my tenure as sheriff, I have never made cuts to this office that would affect the safety and protection of all our citizens and businesses in this parish," Larpenter said. "Our hard-working and dedicated employees continue to serve and protect all of you every day in every way possible."
Two of the announced candidates seeking the job Larpenter will leave are former ranking officials in his administration, both of whom left their posts to pursue the position.
Mike Solet, who was Larpenter's administrative deputy, was the first to announce. Tim Soignet, who has also announced, had been Larpenter's chief of patrol and director the training academy. Blayne Bergeron was a career officer with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for this region who often worked closely with deputies on customs projects and related matters.
Two other candidates are expected to announce this week.
Terrebonne Parish District Attorney's Office investigator Mark Pitre has expressed plans to run within his circle of acquaintances. Col. Terry Daigre, Larpenter's chief deputy and former head of the sheriff's narcotics division, is expected to announce his candidacy as well.
"It has truly been my honor to serve all of you," Larpenter said in the closing statement of his announcement, wishing to thank the public at large for his tenure. "May God bless each and every one of you, our parish, our state and our country."
A lawsuit filed in New Orleans federal court challenges the manner in which Terrebonne Parish handled a special waste permit issue, alleging that the local government mishandled application approval for a company's permit to clean trace amounts of radioactive waste from scrap metal.
The lawsuit, filed against the Terrebonne Parish Consolidated Government by MARS Cleaning Services of Gibson, alleges that the firm was subjected to unequal treatment and also states that a ranking member of the parish government has a conflict of interest in the matter. The court papers do not identify that individual.
The MARS plant in Gibson decommissions and scraps marine scrap metals, including old vessels and offshore platforms.
Radiation is sometimes present on such waste, requiring special precautions. The permits MARS originally had prohibited handling of the radioactive traces, referred to in the industry as NORM, which stands for "Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material."
The company followed instructions for obtaining the proper permits and made plans for handling NORM. The Terrebonne Parish Code of Ordinances includes a provision that waste permits must be approved by the parish council.
The approval process was addressed by opposition from people living in the Gibson area who feared contamination of water and soil from the NORM project, with MARS providing assurances that on-site NORM treatment, which eliminates any possible threat, would be safer and more secure than NORM-contaminated scrap being transported without treatment from the site to a place that actually performs the decontamination work.
The council denied the application at an Oct. 25, 2017 meeting by a vote of 5-4, and MARS representatives began scheduling meetings with parish officials to discuss further the process they proposed.
A hearing was held nearly a year later, and on Nov. 28, 2018, the parish council approved the permit MARS had sought, after a delay of at least a year, numerous hearings and what MARS attorneys say was unnecessary expense.
In the court papers, MARS recounts how "within minutes after the vote," Parish President Gordon Dove announced that he intended "to veto" MARS Cleaning's permit and variance, "despite the fact that the Parish President does not have authority to veto such an action."
The MARS suit recounts public statements from Dove that he believed the permit process resulting in the approval was "procedurally incorrect," with the court papers alleging that those statements contribute to the firm's inability to proceed forward and attract clients. The suit also hints at information concerning a possible conflict.
"At least one high-ranking member of Terrebonne Parish Consolidated Government and a vocal opponent of MARS Cleaning's permit application has a close family member who owns and operate a local business that is in competition with MARS Cleaning's parent company," the court papers state. "Such high-ranking member did not disclose this or otherwise recuse himself from either the public debate or media commentary. Rather, this high-ranking member actively sought to overturn the Parish Council's 5-4 vote granting MARS Cleaning's application."
Gavin Guillot, one of the attorneys representing MARS, was asked Monday why he has not named the alleged official in the pleadings but said he could not answer the question at this time.
After Parish President Dove made his public comments about vetoing the council action he was asked by The Times about rumors circulating in the parish that he had a familial connection to a MARS competitor.
Dove's step-son, Jake Himel, owns Reliant Recycling, a firm considered a competitor of MARS. Asked about the connection, Dove spoke openly, stating that a conflict does not exist.
"They do not fool with NORM waste," Dove said of Reliant, a company in which he has no financial interest. "They have NORM waste meters on (Reliant's) yard. If a truck or a vessel pulls up with NORM it is rejected. They do not compete against MARS on steel with NORM. And if it doesn't have NORM it's open competition."
"Nobody is more pro-business than Gordon Dove," the parish president said after the permit was issued, adding that what he saw as strong opposition from residents moved him to offer a veto, until consultation with attorneys resulted in knowledge that he could not do so. The parish president can veto an ordinance, but not a resolution, which is what the Council voted to pass.
MARS attorneys allege that the delays and difficulties suffered by their client amounts to an unconstitutional taking of property. The company, the lawsuit states, "has suffered or will suffer damages from Terrebonne Parish's actions.
Those damages, the court papers allege, include loss of income and profits, attorney fees, costs related to construction of the NORM facility and other damages.
The parish government has not yet filed its formal response to the suit.