Boat to Table: Louisiana Sea Grant Helps Fishermen Navigate COVID-19 Market
An effort 10 years in the making of connecting seafood harvesters directly with customers finds new purpose.
June 22, 2020 Update: Since the beginning of the COVID-19 shutdown, Sea Grant has helped Louisiana fishermen sell more than 25,000 pounds of fresh catch directly to customers, safely and in person.
June 9, 2020 Update: Sea Grant has helped move 1,800 pounds of Louisiana fish, shrimp, crab, crawfish, and oyster to 31 U.S. states (see map below) through online sales via LouisianaDirectSeafood.com since April. The most popular items are large peeled as well as gumbo-sized shrimp, red snapper fillets, jumbo lump crab meat, crawfish tails, and whole flounder.
“During these unprecedented times, as the COVID-19 pandemic basically shut down normal seafood distribution and purchasing markets, the Sea Grant direct marketing program was an economic lifeline for many in the Louisiana seafood community,” said Jack Montoucet, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. “When traditional wholesale dealers were not purchasing seafood due to the reduction in restaurant activity, this program helped fishers connect directly with consumers as an option to sell their products.”
Product is also being shipped to new Louisiana customers in Shreveport, Bossier City, Baton Rouge, Abbeville, Alexandria, New Iberia, New Orleans, Des Allemands, Broussard, Destrehan, LaPlace, Lafayette, Youngsville, Kaplan, Kenner, Jonesboro, Bush, Abita Springs, Benton, Bogalusa, Deridder, Thibodaux, River Ridge, Saint Francisville, Saint Martinville, Trout, Urania, Vinton, West Monroe, Zachary, Livingston, Metairie, Minden, Natchitoches, among others.
As restaurants started closing due to COVID-19, normal supply chains for Gulf seafood began breaking. Louisiana fishermen who were already living catch to catch to afford their boats and feed their families suddenly didn’t know where to bring their product once back on shore. The freezers at the large seafood processing companies were full, or filling up, and labor became unreliable.
Little did Louisiana Sea Grant College Program Executive Director Robert Twilley know that a network he and his colleagues have been building for 10 years would help keep the state’s vital seafood industry afloat at an unprecedented and strange time. Established in 2011, Louisiana Direct Seafood, or LDS, has helped commercial fishermen, shrimpers, crabbers, and oyster harvesters sell a portion of their catch directly to the public at premium prices to offset sinking dockside prices due to imports, increased fuel costs, and the financial wreckage of 2019’s floods.
Even the commercial processors have started coming around to the idea. Instead of seeing fishermen’s direct sales as competition, albeit small, LDS has become a way for the overall industry to weather a massive storm and keep fishermen on boats once supply chains eventually return to normal.
“Our focus right now is on shrimp,” Twilley said. “With inshore shrimp season opening in May-June and the freezers being full, the product has nowhere to go unless we can help connect the dots and use our established networks to create new supply chains. We’re talking about 48 million pounds of shrimp; that’s the yearly catch and it has to come out of the water, onto the docks, and somehow find its way to people’s plates.”
This week, Sea Grant’s effort was buoyed by Congressman Garret Graves from South Louisiana who negotiated a deal with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to buy 20 million pounds of frozen Gulf shrimp for various food security programs. This will greatly alleviate the commercial processors and allow Sea Grant to focus on building out its direct marketing networks for other commodities, including crab, oysters and finfish.
The weekend before last, Marine Extension Agents Thomas Hymel in New Iberia and Julie Falgout in Houma, who work for both Sea Grant and the LSU Ag Center, helped a Louisiana fisherman move 5,000 pounds of freshly caught red snapper by calling up Frank Randol, the owner of Randol’s restaurant in Lafayette, who happens to have a large parking lot. And this past Saturday, they helped set up another popup market in the same lot with shrimp boat captain Lance Nacio of Anna Marie Shrimp of Montegut who sold not just snapper, but 20-pound grouper and tilefish, too.
“So, I called Frank,” Hymel recalls. “And I said, ‘Hey, can this guy come over there and sell some fish at your place?’ It was a salvage operation, basically. And the only way for Lance to keep working was to try doing this pop-up—he didn’t have a market anymore, and he had fish. So, we were there from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, with cars lined up 30-deep for two and a half hours, and the last car bought the last fish. He sold out.”
This Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday, Hymel will return to Randol’s for
another seafood popup from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the same Randol’s parking lot at 2320
Kaliste Saloom Road in Lafayette where shoppers can remain in their cars and safely
buy fresh Louisiana seafood. Customers are encouraged to pre-order and can get more
information on the Delcambre Direct Seafood Facebook page. Randol’s will be selling live crawfish, crawfish tails, and prepared foods, while
Anna Marie Seafood will have snapper, grouper, tuna, and shrimp.
The way to find out about these one-off events, including dock sales, is for consumers to subscribe to LDS. The program operates in four areas along the coast: Southshore New Orleans, Lafourche/Terrebonne parishes, Delcambre south of Lafayette, and Cameron—going from east to west. Each area has active fishermen posting what they’re catching in a “Find Your Fresh Catch!” blog-style format.
Another place to buy seafood from Louisiana fishermen is online. LouisianaDirectSeafoodShop.com ships frozen product—shrimp, fish, crab, and oysters— anywhere in the US in two days. And one of the Delcambre vendors, Vermilion Bay Sweet, also sells catfish, oysters, and crabmeat on Amazon.
“We’re ranked number one in catfish on Amazon, if that means anything,” said Twin Parish Port Commissioner Wendell Verret. “Online sales have doubled in the last month. We’ve definitely seen an uptick.”
Verret was instrumental in working with Sea Grant to set up the seafood market in Delcambre, which is on the water midway between Abbeville and New Iberia, not far from Avery Island. Delcambre was the shrimp capital of Louisiana before Hurricane Rita, which pretty much wiped it out. By investing in the area and converting the old port into a “living shoreline and destination,” as Twilley describes it, Sea Grant worked with the local community to build new facilities so fishermen could pull their boats up and people could come out with coolers.
“This infrastructure that is already in place could now be the saving grace for that region,” remarked Twilley.
Delcambre’s monthly seafood and farmers market is on hold for the time being—out of respect for social distancing guidelines—but direct sales continue. However, due to COVID-19, there are new considerations.
“A big part of what we do with Sea Grant is education,” Twilley explained. “Especially
through our Louisiana Fisheries Forward program that we run together with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
First of all, we had to figure out if we were defying the Governor’s stay-at-home
order by telling people to go to a dock and pick up seafood. We’re not; there’s a
statute that says that you’re allowed to go acquire food for your family. But how
do we make sure the food is handled safely, and people are being safe during pick-up
and delivery—that takes education—and we also have to be ADA compliant. We’ve spent
10 years teaching the industry these things and teaching how to operate on the Internet.”
Hymel, who directs Louisiana Fisheries Forward, is seeing new microprocessors and mom-and-pop plants opening to clean fish and shrimp, shuck oysters, and pick crab meat.
“We’re talking about resilient, adaptable people in this industry,” he said. “Direct marketing is really the only game right now and people are looking for ways to survive. You see some of them finding their way online.”
He also appreciates the impact of a letter sent out last week by Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Secretary Jack Montoucet encouraging people to purchase seafood produced and caught by Louisiana fishermen.
“Remember that each dollar you spend helps fishermen, their families, and their communities, the backbone of the seafood industry,” wrote Montoucet. “They are counting on this income for their survival, especially after the hardships many of them suffered last year.”
“After that message went out, it was like he flipped a switch,” remarked Hymel. “Boom! Now we’re getting orders from all over the country.”
Looking back, Verret realizes they revamped the Louisiana Direct Seafood Shop website just in time.
“We had this idea that people liked shrimp, but how well would it work to sell this way?” he asked.
As it turns out, more than okay.
“Frankly, Delcambre has been on fire,” Hymel added. “Delcambre has become a model for direct marketing across the state. And fishermen like Lance Nacio are likely to come out of this COVID-19 experience and thrive. He’s changing his whole business operation, moving away from commodity work. He’s an example of the direction folks are going. And speaking of slow food, sometimes you have to slow down to speed up.”
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