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For oyster clan, just another disaster in a series

Sat, 07/24/2010 - 11:29am
Manufacturing.net

As survival stories go, the Voisins have a gem: It goes back more than 200 years ago when the first members of their family to set foot on Louisiana soil weathered a monster storm in spectacular fashion, clinging to their porch while others were washed away.

It was the first test for the Voisins in Louisiana.

It would not be their last.

Over two centuries, there'd be more travails for the family. One generation, then another, slogged through mosquito-thick marshes and navigated around alligator-infested swamps as they fished, trapped, harvested and, in recent decades, processed oysters on the Gulf Coast. They thrived when times were good, struggled when they were not, understanding that's part of the bargain when your livelihood revolves around the water.

But 250 years or so after the first settlers in the family arrived from Libourne, France, the Voisins are still here.

The reasons are many, but Kevin Voisin, an eight-generation oysterman, prefers to keep it simple:

"We just got stuck in the mud," he says, "and we don't want to leave."

Now the Voisins face a new test of their mettle dealing with the aftermath of the Gulf spill that spewed oil into the fish-rich waters for nearly three months, squeezing the state's $2.4 billion seafood industry - and the family's oyster business.

It's too early to tally the losses, but Voisin, vice president of marketing at Motavatit Seafood, is counting on one thing to keep them afloat: the family's long record of tenacity.

"We survived Katrina, we survived Gustav," he says of two recent giant hurricanes. "We've survived a lot of other things, too. It started way back with Jean Voisin hanging on to a house when most everybody around him died. I hope we'll make it. I think if anybody does, it'll be us."

The Voisins (vwah'-sans) are the lucky ones, so far. Their oyster harvesting and processing company - which produced 25 million pounds of the shellfish last year - lost 40 to 60 percent of its business during the spill. If that sounds grim, consider this: They're in far better shape than their competitors, many of whom were forced to close.

"There's no explanation for why we're standing and so many have fallen," he says. "I don't feel guilty because the battle is still raging."

The temporary fix - the July 15 capping of the well after tens millions of gallons of oil oozed into the Gulf - was a relief for Voisin, but no finale, by any stretch. Many oyster fishing grounds remain closed, some of the shellfish are dead, folks are out of work, and the future is uncertain, as is the destination of all that brown oily goo coating the waters.

"There are just millions of gallons of oil out there and until it's all gone, I won't feel better," he says. "We know all the oil has to come ashore. We don't know what the next step is. Is it inevitable? At this point, I think it is but who knows? "

Kevin Voisin has become the public face of the family business since the spill.

He's been interviewed in French by media from France and Canada and is on YouTube, talking about the disaster in English and French. He's been approached about a possible reality TV show ("The Oystermen"?) and started a charity group that he says has received about $60,000 in commitments for those hurt by the spill; he's already helped a handful of people, including one worker laid off when a rival oyster company had to shut down.

His group also has come up with a novel fundraising plan. It's selling oil-tainted water in fancy bottles for an eye-popping $1,000 each. (Voisin says he has shipped about 10 bottles; smaller vials sell for $25.)

Voisin, 34, is part salesman, part student of history (he spices his conversation with references to Teddy Roosevelt and abolitionist Frederick Douglass). He's part spiritual seeker (he was a Mormon missionary in Bordeaux, France) and part pragmatic politician (he's on Houma's parish council). And Voisin is a full-time Cajun who lives, breathes, loves, eats and talks oysters - he's lectured about them on five continents.

Now as he watches his industry struggle, his lament is a familiar one. He is angry with BP, frustrated with the federal government and anxious about what lies ahead.

"I don't think much of the nation understands - they think this is about money and jobs," he says. "But it's beyond that. It's about life. It's about who we are. ... The Cajun way of life is fiercely independent - 'I'm going to take care of myself, you take care of yourself.' ... Why? Because we live in a place with the most glorious abundance of food. ... We've always been able to turn to our surroundings to support us. Now our surroundings are threatening us because of the oil."

Not that anyone is going hungry. But the spill has put a crimp in the fishing industry in a state that ranks first in the nation in producing shrimp, blue crab, crawfish and oysters, which are a $318-million-a year business in Louisiana.

Only about a third of the shrimp, 20 percent of the crab and 20 to 30 percent of the oysters are being harvested, according to Ewell Smith, director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board.

The spill isn't just a financial drain, though; it's a public relations black eye for the fishermen.

Those 85 days of video and photos - the billowing stream of oil, the tar balls on beaches, the dead turtles - have created a false impression for many Americans that the Gulf is closed and seafood isn't safe, Smith says.

"The damage has been done and it continues," he says. "That image has been burned in people's minds. It's going to take five years to turn the perception around. How long are our fisherman and processors going to be hanging on while we rebuild?"

Kevin Voisin wonders, too. He's noticed signs in stores announcing that shrimp and other seafood come from Thailand or some place else - any place but the Gulf.

"How are you ever going to overcome that?" he asks. "Even if the oil fairy came tomorrow and erased all the oil out of the water and magically everything was clean, there's been a hit in the market. ... People are worried and I understand, I get it. That's not what I would do, but I get it."

In reality, no one knows what impact the spill will have on the oyster crop. But there are troubling signs.

Several Louisiana oystermen already have reported their crop is dead. The state diverted fresh water into the estuaries, mostly south of New Orleans along the Mississippi - the strategy was designed to help keep the oil at bay but it also reduced the salt content the shellfish needed to survive.

Oysters can tolerate small doses of fresh water for a few weeks but after that, they'll begin to die.

It's also not just this year's crop at risk. There usually are three seasons on oyster reefs - including those ready to harvest - so if oil invades an area, an oysterman could conceivably be wiped out through 2012.

Many oystermen aren't fishing now, either because the areas are closed to harvest by state agencies, the markets are poor or they've been hired by BP for the cleanup.

Voisin says he knows some folks don't want to work for the oil company, and he doesn't fault them.

"It's like getting in a car wreck and saying 'Well, you'll never be able to do your work anymore but we'll let you pick up the pieces of this wreck for the rest of your life and pay you for it,'" he says.

The Voisins harvest oysters on 10,000 acres spread over 3,000-square miles, mostly in western Louisiana, away from the spill; about 60 percent of the grounds have been closed, so it's unclear what, if any, damage has been done.

During Katrina, their crop was spared. "I had a lot of survivor's guilt," Voisin says.

The Voisins were fishing even before Louisiana was a state. By those standards, their oyster processing business is relatively new, dating back less than 40 years.

Kevin's grandfather Ernest had fished with his father, Liness, as a young man, but moved to California, where he worked for a company that manufactured aerospace components. He was part of the Apollo lunar-landing project, his grandson says, and developed a training program to turn around failing plants. It was called Motivate It.

In 1971, Ernest returned to Louisiana and seafood. His new company had a familiar name: Motavatit. By the time of Ernest's death last year, it had become a $12-million-a-year business, with almost 80 workers, selling oysters around the United States. Kevin's father, Mike, and Mike's twin, Steve, own the firm; Kevin's brother and sister also work there.

In coming weeks, the Voisins will assess their losses. But they know the spill already has been devastating to many Gulf seafood workers, some of whom will pack up and move.

"In order to feed your family, now you have to give up your culture, you have to give up your home," Voisin says. "It's a tough decision for people to make. There will be those who leave and there will be those who'll stay and I won't be the guy who decides who's right."

There's no doubt, though, what he'll do.

"We know how to deal with catastrophe," he says. "We're resilient. It tells you why we like to kick back and have a good time. We know it could all go away in a minute."

Kevin admits he's already thought ahead, wondering if his 10-year-old son, Michael Ernest, named after his father and grandfather, will carry on the oyster legacy.

"The ninth generation to do this - that was going to be a stretch already," he says. "I would love to see him get into this, but I don't know. Two hurricanes and one oil spill later - there's another part of me that says maybe he needs something that doesn't come with all of this tragedy."

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