Interview: Farmers and Fishermen
On the Lafourche bayou about an hour southwest of New Orleans, the Cajun people have passed along shrimp trawling as a way of life for generations. We timed our visit for the Blessing of the Fleet, an annual tradition at the start of the shrimping season intended to ensure a bountiful harvest and safety on the water.
A dozen wooden boats decorated in American flags, blue and orange banners boasting “Shrimp,” and metallic streamers paraded proudly up and down the 100 foot-wide channel, an offshoot of the Mississippi River. Each was crowned with scaffolding that resembled two giant ladders with bars connecting them. These structures support trawling, or dragging of weighted nets across the ocean and bayou floor in order to catch the shrimp that live there.* A Filipino Catholic priest stood at the bow of the lead boat, chanted prayers and asked for God’s blessings.
We rode on the lead boat as well, took pictures and talked to the locals crowded aboard. The people were as colorful as their boats, with thick, twangy accents that sounded more Bostonian than Southern. Many of the older generation still speak French, as the Cajun’s ancestors first immigrated to this area from Nova Scotia in the French-speaking part of Canada. They’re obviously proud of their unique culture—and the fact that they contribute significantly to the 40 percent of US seafood supplied from Louisiana’s waters.
“We’re not American, we’re Cajun,” said Scott, a shrimper in his mid-40s with the clean-cut look of Harry Potter grown up. “We love food, we love our families, we love the church, and we love to fish.”
“Fishing means freedom,” our boat captain Terry told us. His deeply lined face traced a lifetime on the water. “The roar of the engine is like music to our ears.”
Scott concured. “When we get tired of being on land, we go out. We say, ‘I don’t know where I’ll go or when I’ll get back.’”
Sadly, the Cajun way of life is gradually dying out due to pressure from a number of factors, all related to water. The land is rapidly sinking because Louisiana’s wetlands have been nearly destroyed. Hurricanes, which are growing increasingly frequent and powerful due to climate change, threaten to wipe the town off the map. And local young people are leaving for jobs in big cities in part because the Dead Zone is eradicating the Gulf of Mexico’s shrimp supplies.
When the boat parade came to an end, everyone filed directly into the Catholic church at the bayou’s edge for mass. An hour later, the church doors swung open and 200 of the warmest, most enthusiastic people we had ever met poured into the recreational hall for the celebratory feast. We excitedly joined them. A five-piece band played everything from French Cajun classics to modern Nashville hits as the crowd devoured vast quantities of barbequed meats, potato salad, and fried pork rinds. “What happened to the vegetables?” MeiMei asks.
“It’s time for desert!” Sybil, the head chef, said, guiding us to three tables stacked high with sweets. Ben enjoyed the chocolate cake. Jos loved the bread pudding.
It was not time to go home yet, though. A sprite 75-year-old man walked up to me and demanded, “Young lady, you come here now!” We do a Cajun jig while the crowd watched. Then Ali and Duff joined in, learning the steps to a line dance. By the end of the song, we were all in hysterics.
We headed out the door floating on a cloud of well-wishes, hugs, huge smiles, and sincere invitations to come back soon. Duff carried an enormous paper bag that Sybil had given him at the last minute.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“More dessert!” he replied with a grin.
*Trawling can cause significant environmental damage to the ocean floor, and shrimping generates wasted by-catch. But that’s a story for another time. Industrial fisheries do far more harm than these individual operators. Fishing and shrimping are regulated by the government to make them as least damaging as possible, so American shrimp are less harmful than shrimp from other countries. New, sustainable practices also are starting to be implemented.