Extension, Sea Grant agents prove their worth to seafood industry

Linda Benedict  |  6/6/2014 4:16:13 AM

Bruce Schultz

Watch this 1:34-min video, Agents of Change: Fisheries and Seafood.

The early fisheries agents hired by the LSU AgCenter and Louisiana Sea Grant recall that when they started working back in the 1970s, they had an unenviable challenge of proving themselves as government employees who wanted to help local fishing communities.

Alan Matherne, fisheries agent in Terrebonne Parish, started his career in 1981 in St. Bernard Parish. “When I hit the docks, they had no idea of what the AgCenter, Sea Grant or fisheries extension was.”

He said winning the confidence of the local community was the most difficult part of the job.

“I became friends with a lot of the fishing families,” Matherne said. “A lot of times I was just a shoulder to cry on because often there wasn’t a lot we could do to help with some problems.”

The fisheries extension effort was established through the efforts of the LSU AgCenter and the Louisiana Sea Grant after Congress passed the National Sea Grant College Program in 1966. It has the mission of enhancing the practical use and conservation of marine resources, and Cooperative Extension is the primary outreach provider.

Windell Curole was another of the first fisheries agents. Curole, now general manager of the South Lafourche Levee District, said the job was rewarding. “When I worked for extension, I felt like I was working for my family. I thought about my grandfather and how nobody helped him,” he said.

Curole said his grandfather would have benefited from a fisheries agent to teach him “technical things they didn’t know before. All the way from the laws to new gear, new technology.” Curole said he started reviewing bills under consideration by the Louisiana Legislature that would affect commercial fishing to inform the coastal industries what their senators and representatives would be deliberating. He then had to convince his stakeholders that his mission was not to regulate or to enforce laws.

“When I first got there, people didn’t want to talk with me,” he said. “But then they would call me every day when they realized we weren’t a risk, but an asset to people.”

But Mark Shirley, LSU AgCenter fisheries agent based in Vermilion Parish since 1984, learned that his clientele wouldn’t always understand his intentions. He recalled when turtle excluder devices were being first mandated by law, and he was explaining how they worked, a television station was filming the demonstration. “So I’m explaining this, and this shrimper works his way through the crowd, throws a bucket of diesel on the net and sets it on fire. So I quickly let it go and kind of backed up and got out of the crowd.” Shirley said he eventually convinced the shrimpers he was there to help them deal with the new regulations. He said he and the other fisheries agents have established a lasting relationship with the fishing community.

“They tend to depend on us. They know we’re going to give them factual information, nonbiased information,” he said. Ted Falgout, now retired director of Port Fourchon, recalled his ability to speak Cajun French probably helped him get the job as fisheries agent in Lafourche, Terrebonne and St. Mary parishes where much of his clientele was less comfortable speaking English.

“So very few biologists were able to speak Cajun French. So I met with the district agent, Kermit Coulon, and we talked French,” Falgout said.

Decades later, the language issue arose as the shrimping industry shifted to dominance by Vietnamese immigrants. Thu Bui, LSU AgCenter fisheries agent in southwest Louisiana, grew up in a Vietnamese household, and her father is a shrimper. Her knowledge of the fishing industry and her language ability helped bridge a gap with the extension effort when she came onboard in 2006.

“By me being a part of extension, I know that we’ve been able to cross some language barriers. During a meeting, Vietnamese fishermen will stand up and ask questions in their own language, and they will receive a response they can understand. A clear understanding of the materials presented has helped them to integrate into the larger fishing community.”

Matherne said not only has the demographic of shrimpers changed, the domestic shrimp market has been threatened by foreign farm-raised shrimp dumped on the American market, which has led to reduced prices.

Now the extension effort includes helping with a marketing strategy that emphasizes wild, American shrimp over foreign shrimp with lower quality, he said.

A seafood promotion and marketing project aimed at developing direct sales from fishers to customers is being expanded along the Louisiana coast, according to Thomas Hymel, AgCenter and Sea Grant agent. The Louisiana Direct Seafood project started as Delcambre Direct Seafood in 2010 at the Port of Delcambre as a joint effort of the LSU AgCenter and Louisiana Sea Grant, partnering with the Twin Parish Port Commission and Iberia Industrial Development Foundation.

With a $560,000 grant from the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission, the program is expanding into the New Orleans area and Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes. Also planned is expansion into the Cameron Parish coastal area.

The Louisiana Direct Seafood website,  gives information on buying seafood directly as well as information for commercial fishers and others involved in direct marketing. The website has videos giving advice on using the program, marketing seafood, using social media, boat engine maintenance, seafood licensing and hiring foreign labor.

Fishers and seafood distributors post messages on the website when they will be coming to port and the products they have for sale. “This allows customers to contact fishermen and place an order for seafood before the boat returns to the dock,” Hymel said.

The Delcambre venture also developed a local brand offering hand-peeled and deveined frozen jumbo shrimp sold as Vermilion Bay Sweet Shrimp.

“We have businesses calling and asking for that,” he said.

“There is more demand than there is product, which is good.”

The Louisiana Seafood Professionalism Program with training sessions in Houma, Delcambre and Cameron is the second year of a three-year, $3.4 million outreach project for fishers, dock owners and processers. It is funded by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, a partner in the project.

“It’s a world-class seafood education program unlike anywhere in the world,” Hymel said.

The program includes seminars and workshops to show shrimpers and fishing boat owners how to make their rigs more efficient and how to comply with state and federal regulations.

“Those left in the seafood industry are survivors, and they are looking for new things to try,” Hymel said.

Bui sees her role as a liaison between commercial fishing boat owners and regulatory agencies. “We’re basically the boots on the ground. They feel they can trust us and come to us if there’s an issue or something they don’t understand.”

Bui said shrimpers that were far away from the pollution of the Deepwater Horizon spill needed information on what areas were closed to trawling and how to file paperwork for compensation.

After hurricanes, she said, the extension emphasis was on disaster recovery, helping line up programs to assist with facilities and finances. “There were lots of programs that were able to assist the fishermen to get back on their feet.”

Shirley said extension’s role in the disaster recovery included a series of meetings to inform the fishing industry what assistance was available to many people who were out of work for months. “In a lot of cases our job as an extension agent is to kind of help coordinate some activities, find resources and put resources together.”

Shirley said working in extension requires agents to respond to their stakeholders’ needs. For example, alligator producers needed answers to many unanswered questions about raising the reptiles. “So I brought that to the university, and through cooperation with the industry and the AgCenter, we got a project together where we were able to build an alligator research facility.”

This new facility is at the AgCenter Aquaculture Research Station in Baton Rouge.

Shirley said even with more technology available to help stakeholders, the personal contact with an extension agent is still going to be essential for producers to be successful.

“The computer can’t look at someone’s crawfish pond and tell what’s going on. A computer can’t meet with a fisher man and notice that the measurements on his turtle excluder device are a couple of inches off. So that’s where having a real person still available for clients to call and talk to and visit, that’s the importance of keeping an extension service. We’ll never be obsolete because we have eyes and ears, and we have the experience that we can see things a computer can’t see.”

Bruce Schultz is an assistant communications specialist with LSU AgCenter Communications.

(This article was published in the spring 2014 issues of Louisiana Agriculture.)

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