Seafood industry still faces hurdles

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O’Neal Sevin is a fifth-generation member of the lower Terrebonne Parish fishing industry. He and his wife, Samantha, have lived in Chauvin their entire lives and were raised among the boats.

The couple opened Bait House Seafood in 1998 and began providing bait to commercial and recreational fishermen. They also sold fresh oysters, shrimp, crab and fish, much of which was purchased by offshore oilmen headed home to spend a few days with their families.

Business grew and was going well, until April 20, 2010, when, while drilling an exploratory well at Macondo, a series of explosions and fire at the BP Deepwater Horizon resulted in 11 deaths and prompted the largest oil release in North American history.

The oil spill and a subsequent federal moratorium on offshore drilling put people out of work and sent fear throughout American markets regarding the safety of Gulf Coast seafood.

In turn, the Bait House and hundreds of more businesses like it in Louisiana coastal communities were, at the very least, severely hurt, and at worse, financially ruined. During the past 23 months, the Sevins estimate their business has dropped by 80 percent.

“The seafood business is all we’ve ever done,” O’Neal said. “Prior to the oil spill we were growing by 20 percent each year. Since the oil spill we haven’t been able to pick up where we left off. “

“We went from having five employees to one employee, and she is part time,” Samantha added. “Sometimes, she is working for free.”

The Sevins remain in negotiation with the Golf Coast Claims Facilities and continue their effort to recover compensation for damages from B.P.

O’Neal said since the oil spill he has noticed that shrimp and oyster yields have declined and crabs are smaller than in past seasons. “I’d say [catches] are not even half of normal,” he said.

According to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, exact numbers on the 2011 shrimp harvests have not been completely tabulated. A preliminary figure of 37.7 million pounds is significantly higher than the 17.3 million pounds brought in during the shortened season of 2010. A high point for the past decade came in 2003 when the harvest was 57.8 million pounds.

Experts like O’Neal contend that even if the harvest is better, selling the product could be another factor. Regaining lost ground is an even greater challenge.

“We need to get people to understand that the seafood is clean and fresh,” Samantha said. Promoting that message is one element the Sevins are addressing as they rebuild with a new understanding of an industry they have known all their lives.

While virtually starting their seafood operation over, the Sevins found help from the Louisiana Small Business Development Center.

“They took us through a lot of things,” Samantha said. “They helped us get our name out more and showed us how we can cut back in some areas and do business better in others. They offered counseling, showed us how to keep records and showed us ways to cut corners.”

Among the Bait House Seafood marketing additions are brochures the Sevins are using to publicize their business. Bait House Seafood will also host a fishing rodeo during June to draw attention to the area.

The Sevins credit LSBDC with helping them understand more about their own business, not only in terms of recovery but in growing as well.

“We help people with existing business and people trying to start up a business,” said LSBDC spokesperson Jennifer Hardeman.

The LSBDC representative said services include training seminars that teach about writing business and marketing plans, how to finance a business and a variety of subjects to expand business operations.

Funded by the Small Business Administration, the non-profit organization offers printed material and software to participants. The LSBDC will host a trade and export promotion seminar at Nicholls State University on March 21. Information and registration for the free event can be found at

“It is going to take a little while to come back,” O’Neal said. “But it will.”

Samantha Sevin looks over a new brochure that the Bait House Seafood in Chauvin is using to promote its business. Sevin said that public perception on the safety of seafood is the greatest challenge this Louisiana industry must overcome to restore sales.