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Pride Prevalent, but Wounded, at Louisiana Shrimp and Oil Festival

September 3, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Even after the BP oil spill all but canceled this year's shrimp harvest in the Gulf of Mexico, the 75th Annual Shrimp and Petroleum Festival in Morgan City, Louisiana, is proceeding full-steam ahead.Pride Prevalent, But Wounded at Louisiana Shrimp and Oil Festival
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: the latest from the Gulf Coast. BP said today that it successfully removed the blowout preventer that failed to stop the oil spill from the Macondo well. It’s been an especially tough summer along the Gulf, and yesterday’s platform explosion only added to the fears about a double economic whammy.

But one important tradition lives on this Labor Day weekend. NewsHour correspondent Tom Bearden has our report from Morgan City, Louisiana.

(MUSIC)

TOM BEARDEN: Louisianians have a lot of pride, in their music, their food, their culture. But they have a special pride in their ability to throw a party.

This year marks the 75th annual Morgan City Shrimp and Petroleum Festival, a celebration of the two biggest local industries. It’s getting some pretty unusual national and international press attention, in the wake of the BP oil disaster. Putting the two together strikes some outsiders as strange.

But the editor of The Morgan City Daily Review, Steve Shirley, says there’s nothing odd about it at all.

STEVE SHIRLEY, editor & publisher, The Daily Review: It’s a harvest festival, but it’s not just for fishing or seafood. We harvest natural resources. That includes oil, natural gas, shrimp, flounder, snapper. I mean, it goes on and on. It is — it is a very, very diverse harvest festival. It’s — it’s something that everybody can enjoy.

TOM BEARDEN: For weeks, the paper has been cranking out special edition sections about the festival. Not only is it the 75th anniversary; it’s also the 150th anniversary of the founding of Morgan City itself. Shirley says the advertising business has been pretty good.

The same can’t be said about the shrimp and oil businesses. There is a cloud over the town because both are facing very uncertain futures. Take shrimper Matt Tune, for example. He’s pulled the nets from his boat and plans to stay at the dock until October, because one of the best shrimpers he knows came back from a trip the other day with a catch that barely covered his expenses, much less make a profit.

I know you are looking toward October, but what about beyond that? What about next year and the year after?

MATT TUNE, shrimper: I really don’t know, sir. I’m trying to just focus on right now. And I am really worried about the next years, because, when Exxon Valdez, you know, it was like 10 years there that nobody was able to fish. But we’re hoping and praying that it’s not that long for us.

TOM BEARDEN: But what really hurts is that the shrimp people will be eating at the festival didn’t come from local waters, because nobody’s catching very many shrimp.

MATT TUNE: I hate to see them have to bring shrimp in from the East Coast. We have never had to do that before, even for Hurricane Andrew and other hurricanes. We had to shut down the shrimp festival for Hurricane Andrew, but we still caught our own shrimp. We didn’t have to borrow them from somebody else.

TOM BEARDEN: Morgan City has a scrap yard where old oil field equipment is cut up for salvage. People who work in oil here want to make sure today’s business doesn’t meet the same fate.

Bill New’s company makes pressure vessels, large steel tanks that are used offshore and on barges. He has been able to avoid layoffs so far, but he’s afraid that the ongoing federally imposed moratorium on deepwater drilling will cause some companies to move their rigs to other countries. At least one rig has left for Egypt, but the administration says the industry’s dire predictions of an exodus haven’t come true.

BILL NEW, president, New Industries: The biggest thing that concerns me about all this is the long-term implications. These projects in deepwater tend to be very long, multiyear-cycle projects. And we’re fairly far down the food chain. We don’t get involved until the latter stages of the project.

And if they’re not out drilling wells today and making discoveries and doing engineering, a year from now, there’s not going to be any work for us to do. And that’s my big concern, is — is how long this moratorium lasts.

TOM BEARDEN: The deepwater drilling moratorium is set to expire in November. A lot of people around here had hoped it would be lifted earlier. Now there is concern about what might happen in the wake of yesterday’s production platform fire.

Newspaper editor Steve Shirley:

STEVE SHIRLEY: There is a very real concern right now that it will literally price us or regulate us out of the market and that the drilling rigs will leave, the labor force will leave, and we will be left with a fishing village.

TOM BEARDEN: Which doesn’t support a whole lot of people.

STEVE SHIRLEY: It does not. It’s a scary prospect, if we can’t put our oil patch to work, what is going to be left of South Louisiana, even places like Houston, Texas. It’s not just a Morgan City or South Louisiana concern. It’s — it’s a United States concern.

TIMOTHY MATTE, mayor of Morgan City, Louisiana: I could tell the beach wasn’t as crowded. The restaurants weren’t as crowded. And…

TOM BEARDEN: Morgan City Mayor Tim Matte says the town is determined not let any of this put a damper on the Shrimp and Petroleum Festival.

TIMOTHY MATTE: There was that poll done earlier this year that said Louisiana is the happiest state in the nation. And I think that is reflective of our community, too. You know, certainly — certainly, things like the moratorium cause some concern, but, you know, you get to kind of put some of that aside for a weekend like this and kind of just enjoy each other’s company, enjoy the music, enjoy the food.

TOM BEARDEN: Matte and others in Morgan City hope the attention the festival has attracted continues after the rides have stopped, as Louisiana struggles to get back to normal after the oil disaster.