For fishermen in Louisiana, a livelihood lost after Hurricane Ida

LAFITTE, La. – On the banks of Bayou Barataria, a pelican glides over the top of the brackish water, which is so calm you can hear waves lapping against the shore. Stacks of crab traps and fishing nets lay idle on the shoreline. Occasionally, there is the whir of a propeller, which barely registers above the sound of wildlife, puttering as it pushes a boat around debris on the bottom of the bayou.

Gone, for the most part, is the constant sound of diesel engines turning over and the salty language of the fishermen loading and unloading the catch of the day. Many of the docks, including the 200-foot dock that has been in Randy Nunez’s family for 71 years, won’t return.

“It looks like a ghost town. It’s hard to see. The bayous are empty. The boats are tied up. The shrimp prices are too low,” Nunez said as he sat on the side of the bayou near what used to be one of the largest docks in the area. “Before you’d see boats coming out and boats coming in. Boats were constantly passing on the bayou.”

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One year after Hurricane Ida capsized boats and shredded docks, marinas, restaurants, and icehouses here in Lafitte and the surrounding villages, the recovery continues. The storm left insurmountable economic pain for the people behind the commercial fishing vessels, marinas, and other fishery infrastructure that made up the area’s seafood economy.


Nunez Seafood’s 200-foot dock was completely destroyed by Hurricane Ida. The business was forced to close permanently. Photo by Randy Nunez/Nunez Seafood

Nunez had to close down Nunez Seafood, the wholesale seafood business where he worked with his dad starting at age 13, unloading seafood. The business had survived a dozen hurricanes in this coastal fishing village 25 miles southwest of New Orleans, but Ida dealt a fatal blow.

“I can’t put it in words,” Nunez said. “It was a total wipeout.”

For Nunez, 68, and his wife, that meant income dropped to zero overnight. The storm destroyed his house, too, which would also be costly to rebuild. For a year, he and his wife had to live with his daughter.

Business losses exceeded $250,000, and he didn’t have any insurance because of the high costs. So, when the dock dealer added it all up – the damage, loss of income, market conditions, and the amount of debt needed to recover – he knew “it was the end.”

The cost of replacing equipment, as well as the pressure of paying off a loan, were factors weighed by Nunez while making his final decision. He said he didn’t want to burden his kids with the debt.

Now he has nothing to pass to them. “I knew I couldn’t pay back the principal, much less the interest on a small business loan,” he said.

As serene as it looks, the near silent sounds of the once-working waterfront are ominous. The emotions bubbled up for Nunez as he described the pain of seeing it all washed away.

“It’s like losing somebody, you know. All my trucks were destroyed. They were all underwater. All my machines and scales was underwater,” Nunez said. “When I saw it, I looked at my wife and said, ‘I’m done.’ It would be impossible to recover.”

Jules Melancon_Caged Oysters

Jules Melancon harvests farm raised oysters grown in off-bottom cages in the Gulf of Mexico. For years, commercial fishermen have been hit by environmental disasters, economic losses, and competition from imports. Many have yet to recover from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the BP Oil Spill in 2010. Photo by

For commercial fishermen and those who depend on the bayou, little money is coming in one year after the destructive forces of Ida – a Category 4 storm that made matters worse for Louisiana’s seafood industry. Record high fuel costs, upended livelihoods, and low shrimp prices make the recovery that much more difficult for the 3,000 commercial fishermen working off the waters of Louisiana. Normally, this is one of the most productive fisheries in the continental United States – a more than $2.4 billion industry. One out of every 70 jobs in Louisiana is related to the seafood industry. For some of those people, the storms have meant less work or no work at all.

“I’m retired. I don’t think I’m going back. As for the seafood business overall, it’s coming to an end. I could see it,” Nunez said. “Lafitte will never be the same. I could just tell by talking to people. Before, everyone was happy. They’re happy now, but it’s not the same. Something is missing.”

From August 2020 to 2021, over the course of two hurricane seasons, four storms – including Laura, Delta, Zeta, and Ida – have cost the Louisiana fisheries industry nearly $580 million in losses to infrastructure, revenue, and resources, according to a January report by Louisiana Sea Grant and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.


Stacks of crab traps and fishing nets lay idle on the shoreline of coastal Louisiana a year after Hurricane Ida. Many fisherman are still recovering from capsized boats and shredded docks, marinas, and icehouses. Despite the losses, the commercial fisheries industry has yet to receive federal aid following the storm. Photo by Roby Chavez/PBS NewsHour

“When I ran the numbers, I had to do a double take; that seems pretty high,” said Rex Caffey, director of marine extension for the Louisiana Sea Grant, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration program at Louisiana State University and whose report said the storms caused “major destruction to a region of national importance for domestic fisheries and seafood production.”

The report documents extreme damage and loss of revenue over all five sectors of the industry: commercial fishermen, recreational fishing, docks, processors, and marinas.

Total damages to seafood industry infrastructure were estimated to be about $305 million. Ida, which made landfall in 2021, accounts for 70 percent of that number. Revenue losses for 22 coastal parishes totaled $155.3 million from the four storms. And biological resource losses – harvestable seafood – totaled $118.5 million.


In the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, many fishing boats along the Barataria Basin in Lafitte were badly damaged by winds and tidal surge. Photo by

Caffey’s team mapped 8,503 individual businesses in the Louisiana coastal zone representing every aspect of the seafood industry. He said the findings show an “unprecedented amount of hurricane impacts along a single coast.” Caffey pointed out the losses are likely greater since the report does not capture all businesses, like icehouses, marine fabrication, supply shops, and lodging.

Still, Caffey and others believe the storms aren’t the only thing destroying the seafood industry, although they are accelerating the decline. For years, commercial fishermen have been hit by environmental disasters, economic losses, and competition from imports. Caffey said the state has had a 50 percent reduction in commercial fishing licenses issued since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. And those who are still fishing are earning less; the price shrimpers receive for a pound of shrimp, adjusted for inflation, is actually lower than it was in 1980, Caffey said. Meanwhile, the cost of things like fuel, ice, and labor has increased substantially.

“It’s very difficult, particularly with the economy the way it is and with inflation hitting us and all these other things that are affecting the industry. All these people are scrambling to find some way to survive.”

He hopes the data will help lead to federal funding before more fishermen are lost.

“It’s big. There will always be some modicum of fishing in this state, given the abundance of the resources, but it will look a lot different. It already looks different now than it did 20 years ago,” Caffey said. “Maybe there needs to be a policy question and analysis of whether or not we’re ready to lose some very important sectors economically and culturally. That seems to be where we’re headed.”

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It’s a grim outlook for those who literally make a living off the water.

In Lafitte, the seafood economy is vital from dock to table because it sustains the coastal community, especially at places like Jan’s Cajun Restaurant; the little blue restaurant was swept away by Ida’s 12-foot tidal surge. It took eight months to reopen, and its new owners hope they can carry their family tradition into the next generation.

Lanie and Jordan Adam, both in their 30s, will take over the restaurant for their aunt, who had to step away after 30 years because they say “it was just too much for her to deal with.”

The last year was a costly and challenging time while the couple and their two boys lived 25 miles away with a family friend for six months and then with her grandparents until last week.


Photos show a before (top) and after picture of Jan’s Cajun Restaurant in Lafitte. The popular blue restaurant was a total loss (bottom) and owners are operating out of a temporary facility at a park pavilion. Photos courtesy of Lanie Adam/Jan’s Cajun Restaurant

“It was a huge struggle. Honestly, we were so lost and confused right after the hurricane. We were like, ‘Should we do it? Should we not do it?’” Lanie Adam said. “There was just a lot going through our heads, but deep down in our hearts, we love what we do. The community just kept begging us to reopen, and here we are.”

Today, there is no building — they share outdoor park space with another restaurant trying to make a comeback. Before the storm, they had a six-burner stove, freezers, dishwashers, grills, and a salad bar. Nothing was salvageable, and now they’re starting from scratch, with a limited menu, a deep fryer, and a griddle.

Each day the couple has to haul everything out to the park shelter and then haul it back at the end of the day. Only three of the town’s six restaurants have fully reopened.

“We’re just all trying to make it. We’re just going to take it day by day. I’m hoping a miracle happens so we could be in a building before winter because we definitely are not going to be cooking outside during the winter months,” Adam said, adding that the personal fallout has been “gut-wrenching.”

“We’re definitely struggling right now because we had to use up all our savings while we were out of work,” she said. “Our customers and our community and tourists are very supportive and want us to stay open, but we can only do so much.”

While the couple managed to open, they can’t even afford to hire back workers or buy more equipment. Relatives volunteer to take orders, cook and wait tables.


Jan’s Cajun Restaurant was swept away by a 12-foot tidal surge from Hurricane Ida. Jordan Adam walks through thick mud and water left by the storm (left). Today, new owners operate a makeshift location under a park pavilion (right). Photos courtesy of Lanie Adam/Jan’s Cajun Restaurant

For the Adam family, the future weighs heavy. They saved the family business, but they’re not sure how long they can hang on. The possibility of closing for good is a harsh reality.

“That would be hard. Me and my husband; we don’t want to do anything else,” said Adam. “This is what we love. I love seeing my customers, and he loves cooking for people and seeing people happy with full bellies. I don’t know. Everything’s uncertain right now.”

The slowdown has also impacted the tourism industry, which thrives on saltwater fishing charters. Anglers say Louisiana’s coast is one of the few places in the world where you can hook a largemouth bass and a variety of saltwater fish in the same spot. However, when the bayou shuts down, the effect is devastating on Louisiana’s $3.2 billion recreational fishing economy.

“[The commercial fisherman in Lafitte] have been through hell. Not only is the infrastructure heavily damaged from Ida but all of the other ones that came before,” said Albert “Rusty” Gaudé, a Louisiana Sea Grant agent and fisheries expert with Louisiana State University. “We still have infrastructure damage that has not been repaired since before Ida hit. These are not insignificant, trivial damages.”

Gaudé, who has responded to 12 hurricanes, said there is still “uncertainty and overwhelming sadness” in Lafitte. “Some things are going to be worse. Some things are going to be better. Some people are going to go out of business. Some people are going to move. Some people are actually going to move in. Some people will see opportunity where most people just see complete and utter disaster.”

At Doc’s Fishing Charters, Captain Maurice d’Aquin could not take his boat out for eight months after the storm. Beyond the debris, the infrastructure in Lafitte was gone. There was no place for tourists to stay. All the marinas with cabins or places to stay were damaged.

“We lost one-third of the business that we had prior to the storms. Right now, we have had three to four weekends without a single booking. It’s scary,” d’Aquin said. “I depended on the charters to help pay bills, and now you don’t have that money, so it’s been a long road to recovery. People were afraid to come down here because they saw the devastation on TV.”


Tourists pose with fish caught during a recreational charter trip in Lafitte. After Ida, business at Doc’s fishing charters was shut down for eight months. The charter business has been slow to return due to lack of infrastructure. Photo by Maurice d’Aquin/Doc’s Fishing Charters

Slowly the charter business is returning, but it’s a whole new waterway to navigate, and it means having to chase the fish further out in unfamiliar waters. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates Hurricane Ida was responsible for the loss of 106 square miles of wetlands, an area slightly larger than Baton Rouge, with most of the loss occurring in the Barataria Basin near Lafitte.

“When you get back on the water, the whole ecosystem has changed. There’s lakes that was not there before. There was a one-mile lake that is probably 15 miles around now. Those spots that you have fished for years and years; they have completely changed,” d’Aquin said. “You do get disoriented. Now I have to constantly look down at my GPS.”

Ida traveled right down the breadbasket of the industry – the major fishery ports and producers from Lafitte to Grand Isle. Lafitte, Crown Point, and Barataria are located on strips of coastal land that sit virtually defenseless against rising tides and intense storms. The Category 4 storm was the strongest storm on record ever to hit the area.

As a result, the fisheries industry is pulling its resources together to improve things and protect the future. The Louisiana Fishing Community Recovery Coalition (LFCRC), which comprises 15 seafood organizations, believes the half-billion dollar cost to commercial fishing and seafood sectors is low. Still, it helps that the economic assessment of losses calculation came quicker than in past storms, like Hurricane Katrina, LFCRC chair Harlon Pearce said.

“The cost is still building right now because some people still don’t have their docks up. Some people have retired and aren’t going to rebuild,” Pearce said. “We’ve lost a lot of different segments of our fishery. There’s a lot of things that are going to have to happen before things come back because the damage is real.”

In the year since the storm, federal funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Extending Government Funding and Delivering Emergency Assistance Act has funneled $2.6 billion to Louisiana. And yet, Pearce said Lafitte and other coastal areas have been left out of the federal disaster funding for fisheries recovery. There was no federal fisheries disaster declaration to date after Ida or the storms in the year before it. He believes the Louisiana Sea Grant report will help justify the need for assistance for the fisheries.

“The fisheries needed help just staying alive, even before the storms. Right now, we don’t have young people getting into our business because they don’t see a future with it,” Pearce said. “An opportunity has been created to rebuild the infrastructure back in a new way to withstand future storms. We must learn from the past to create a new path forward.”

Since forming in December, the coalition has outlined a plan to shore up the future of the industry with proposals for crop insurance, safe harbors for processing facilities and boats, and making infrastructure like docks more durable.

Pearce said most fishermen do not qualify for unemployment insurance because they are self-employed. As a result, fishermen have no income when the boats are taken out of service. Pearce said most fishermen are only left with the option of a small business loan, which they can’t afford.

“Some people are just giving up. It’s one thing to say I can get a loan to rebuild my dock, for instance, but then are you going to live long enough to pay it off,” he said.

In the end, the loss of people was as great as the family’s dock. Back in the 1980s, Nunez worked with 242 fishermen. When Ida hit, he was down to 35. After the storm, he lost 10 more who lost their boats. All of it has left a lasting scar.

On top of the storm losses, for the past five years his business has constantly lost money because gulf shrimp production has dropped. In the 1980s, Nunez said he would buy and sell in excess of 100,000 pounds of shrimp daily. Today, it would take anywhere from 10 days to a month to buy that much.

“Ida just put the icing on the cake for me and a lot of fishermen,” Nunez said. “It was getting to the point where it was just too many headaches, too many problems that you never had before.”