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Taking it day by day in the bayou

A shrimp fishing boat returns to port in Port Fourchon after the commercial fishing industry was shutdown due to spreading oil from the BP Deepwater Horizon platform disaster in Louisiana. Louisiana's $2.4-billion a year commercial and recreational fishing industry was dealt its first major blow from the oil spill, as the U.S. government banned activities for 10 days due to health concerns.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Tess Vigeland: Jobs are the story of this Great Recession. So hopes were high for a more positive employment report this week. And indeed, the economy added 431,000 jobs in May. But 95 percent of those were temporary census workers. So the picture's still bleak.

And now we're going to put that picture alongside another employment story: The one being drawn along the Gulf Coast as oil continues to spew from the BP disaster. Pete Gerica is a shrimper, crabber and fin fisherman in eastern New Orleans, and he joins us from his home, where we brought him in from working in his garden. Welcome to the program.

Pete Gerica: Thanks for having me.

Vigeland: Tell us a little bit about what you do and how you got into this business.

Gerica: Well, I'm a third-generation commercial fisherman. My dad fished oysters and did a little shrimpin'. And his dad came from a little island in Yugoslavia, and he was a fisherman down there and became a fisherman and a boat builder out here. So I've been in it all my life. Labor of love, I guess.

Vigeland: And how long have you been doing this?

Gerica: Basically since around the early 70s, like '71 or '72, something like that. You know, when I got out to high school, I jumped into this, and here I am, still at it.

Vigeland: Describe a typical day for you before the spill.

Gerica: Well, I mean, we try to plan. Since the storm, I took a different outlook on life. I mean, we lost a lot in Katrina. We went through the storm, where we were swimming actually.

Vigeland: What do you mean you were swimming?

Gerica: Our house fell down with a tornado before the hurricane came all the way through. So we wound up in a tree for about seven and a half hours before Katrina, so that puts a different spin on things. It was me, mother, my daughter, my dog and my wife. My wife disappeared from us for about six hours, and I found her after everything calmed down enough that I can get lookin' around and get everybody out the tree.

So you learn through something like that that material things don't mean that much to you. It's family, friends. You do what you can to make it from day-to-day, basically. So we work little farmer's markets selling fresh seafood to patrons here in New Orleans. We try to catch enough shrimp in the wintertime, you know, before the season's closed. Large shrimp, to put some in the freezers, so we'll have some for this time of the year, when it's usually smaller shrimp.

Vigeland: So presumably, like a lot of the fishing industry, you're up early in the morning, out there before dawn and coming back in the afternoon?

Gerica: Oh yeah, yeah. A lot of times I fish at night. During the shrimp season, basically, I trawl at night, unless it's something where you shift it over to the daytime, because sometimes it just don't work at night, so you gotta shift to the day.

Vigeland: Yeah. Well, so what's a typical day like now? You are not out there right?

Gerica: Well, no, we kind of hit and miss. I go out there and catch a few fish. There is fresh fish available, there's some fresh crabs available, there's some fresh shrimp available. It's not in all areas, because what we have right now is, if you look at the maps of what they've been doing, it's sporadically... They're closing areas precautiously.

In other words, if they feel that they might have some oil film or some oil or whatever in a given area within a 24-hour period, then they'll shut that section down. But you know, we're basically working, just not as actively as we'd like to, because we lost our main run, which is the spring run. Some guys was making good money out there when it happened.

And you know, when we got shut down, you get shut down for 40-something days -- 42 days, 43 days -- you lost that income that's only at that period of time, so you're not going to make it up. Hopefully, we don't have the same thing happen in the beginning of August, is when usually we get our first run on white shrimp. Hopefully, the area where they're going to drop the eggs is not the area where the oil's at.

Vigeland: Well, there's a lot of "hopefullys" coming from you at this point.

Gerica: Well, you know what it is, is we got this big white elephant in the room, and we don't know where he's going. And you know, with this oil, it's a mystery, because you got oil you can see, and you also have all that you can't see that's running in the lower tides. So that's why we've got so many "what ifs" and "hopefullys" in the mix here.

Vigeland: Pete, what happens to you and your family if things end up being shut down for a long period of time -- months, possibly years?

Gerica: Well, I mean, if you can't do what we're doing, I mean, like I said with storms and stuff in the past, we learned to be resilient. A lot of the things I do depend on people fishing, because I can go back to building boats or I can build fiber glass whatevers for people. I've built fiber glass swimming pools when things are slow. Gotta do what you gotta do to make ends meet. You like to fish, it's a labor of love, it's in your blood.

I couldn't wait to get to the bayou after Katrina, because it was killing me to be in Baton Rouge. I want to wake up in the morning and see birds and water and stuff I'm used to, you know? Instead of cars and people going to school. But if the fisheries is knocked down into a state that we can't survive -- you know, make a living, turn over a profit -- we'll have to go to other things.

Vigeland: But it sounds like you have thought about what happens if fishing becomes something that you can't do.

Gerica: Yeah, you gotta. This business is like gambling, it's a hit-and-miss proposition. When luck's witchy, you make money. When it's not witchy, you don't make money. You've got hurricanes and all kinds of natural things that affect us and move us around.

And that's another things, we can move to another part of the state and fish. Most of us do that any how, because you fish where the fishing's best. And luckily, we've got a big coastline, from Texas, all the way to Mississippi. If not, then you just do what you gotta do -- whether it be carpenter work or whatever you can do. And most of the fishermen are like that -- they're handy with things and they're resilient. They're going to do what it takes to hang in there, so that when things get better, they can work again.

Vigeland: Pete Gerica is a New Orleans shrimper. He's been doing that for going on four decades now. Pete, I don't think this story's going away anytime soon -- is it alright if we check in with you again in a month or so?

Gerica: Sure. This is a work in process, I like to call it. We just take it day by day, we're putting our game plan together and hopefully, we can win the game. If not, then we'll see what the next move's going to be, you know?

Vigeland: Best of luck to you. Thanks so much.

Gerica: Thank you.

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