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Shrimp and Petroleum: The Social Ecology of Louisiana's Offshore Industries

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This essay examines the intimate historical relationship between two of south Louisiana’s most important industries, shrimping and offshore oil. Analyzing the social, cultural, and labor dimensions of environmental change, the essay argues that
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  Tyler Priest ShrimpandPetroleum:TheSocialEcologyofLouisiana’sOffshoreIndustries Abstract This essay examines the intimate historical relationshipbetween two of south Louisiana’s most important indus-tries, shrimping and offshore oil. Analyzing the social, cul-tural, and labor dimensions of environmental change, theessay argues that petroleum did not undermine the envi-ronmental sustainability of shrimping, as many scholars as-sert, but rather evolved in an intimate and complementaryrelationship to it. The organization of labor, transportation,and physical space by shrimp and petroleum were mutuallyreinforcing, the products of a similar social ecology of wa-terborne extraction and commerce. The essay also explainshow the close bond between shrimp and petroleum foundcultural expression in the Louisiana Shrimp & PetroleumFestival, long held each Labor Day weekend in Morgan City,Louisiana. Ultimately, the threat to the local survival ofthese industries came not from oil-driven environmentaldegradation and resource depletion, as often implied, butfrom global competition and industry migration. V C  The Author 2016. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the AmericanSociety for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved.For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.comTyler Priest, “Shrimp and Petroleum: The Social Ecology of Louisiana’s OffshoreIndustries,”  Environmental History  doi: 10.1093/envhis/emw03100 (2016): 1–28.   Environmental History Advance Access published May 25, 2016   b  y g u e  s  t   onM a  y2  6  ,2  0 1  6 h  t   t   p :  /   /   e n vh i   s  . oxf   or  d  j   o ur n a l   s  . or  g /  D o wnl   o a  d  e  d f  r  om  You and I ought to be friends, Dominique. We both have thesame kind of job. You look for one thing in the Gulf. I’mlooking for something else. That’s the only difference.—Oilman Steve Martin (Jimmy Stewart) to shrimperDominque Rigaud (Antonio Moreno),  Thunder Bay   (1953) INTRODUCTION On the Sunday before Labor Day in September 1936, the Gulf CoastSeafood Producers & Trappers Association of Morgan City, Louisiana,held a “friendly labor demonstration” featuring a parade of alligatorhunters, crab fishers, dockworkers, oystermen, and shrimpers. Whatbegan as a show of labor solidarity morphed into an annual celebra-tion highlighted by the Blessing of the Fleet, in which a local priestasked for God’s graces to be bestowed on the community’s fishingcraft. The celebration eventually billed itself as the Louisiana ShrimpFestival, and residents turned out to “pay tribute to an industry whichhas grown to be the greatest single factor in the economic welfare of Morgan City.” 1 In 1967 city leaders expanded the celebration to include the petro-leum industry, adopting its present-day name, the Louisiana Shrimp& Petroleum Festival. Built along a course of the Atchafalaya River’sfinal stretch into the Gulf of Mexico (figure 1), Morgan City had bythat time emerged as one of the central hubs for offshore oil operatorsworking in the Gulf. The Blessing of the Fleet then included crew andsupply boats for offshore operations, as well as shrimp trawlers.Although outside observers have found the festival’s marriage of shrimp and petroleum to be unnatural or perverse, the pairing hashistorical validity for residents of the Atchafalaya Basin, where one of the world’s most productive shrimp fisheries and one of its most pro-lific oil-producing regions grew and prospered together for decades. 2 Scholars often assume that the coexistence between shrimp and pe-troleum has been an uneasy one, fraught with tension between tradi-tion and modernity, stability and change, and subsistence and profit.Together, these tensions amounted to a conflict between nature(shrimp) and the industrial machine (petroleum). Some argue thatthe offshore oil industry became the “vehicle whereby the modernworld breaches the walls that surround the parochial village,” onethat was long sustained by shrimping. 3 When outside oil interests in-vaded south Louisiana communities, according to this narrative, theyintroduced new competition for resources, labor, and physical space.Ultimately, this competition undermined both the cultural and envi-ronmental sustainability of the traditional shrimping community. 4 Petrodollars, in short, displaced seafood dollars. 5 Environmental History 212   b  y g u e  s  t   onM a  y2  6  ,2  0 1  6 h  t   t   p :  /   /   e n vh i   s  . oxf   or  d  j   o ur n a l   s  . or  g /  D o wnl   o a  d  e  d f  r  om  Such a narrative withers under historical scrutiny. Although notimmune to conflict, shrimping and oil evolved in an intimate andcomplementary relationship. For many residents of Louisiana’s so-called Cajun Coast, long accustomed to harvesting their surround-ings, whether trees, sugarcane, fish, oysters, alligators, or muskrats,extracting oil from the sea was another kind of harvest, no less “natu-ral” than trawling for shrimp. As Jimmy Stewart’s character, SteveMartin, insists in the 1953 Hollywood feature,  Thunder Bay  , filmed inMorgan City, the search for shrimp and oil were kindred pursuits.Morgan City shrimpers and oilmen (almost always men), equallyshaped by the vagaries of the open water and the capricious bountyof nature, experienced the marine environment of the Gulf of Mexicoin similar ways. Even more, they did not merely profit side by sidefrom the Gulf’s abundance. Rather, their success was a joint effort.The organization of labor, transportation, and physical space byshrimp and petroleum were mutually reinforcing, the products of asimilar social ecology of waterborne extraction and commerce.Although that twin success lasted decades, it eventually waned.Shrimp and petroleum are still important industries in the Gulf, buttheir prominence in Morgan City/St. Mary’s Parish today is a silhou-ette of what it once was. Oil development has contributed to other en-vironmental problems along the Gulf Coast, namely coastal erosionand contamination from the BP oil spill of 2010, but the changing Figure 1. Map of Morgan City, Louisiana. Credit: Diane Austin, 2013. Shrimp and Petroleum 3   b  y g u e  s  t   onM a  y2  6  ,2  0 1  6 h  t   t   p :  /   /   e n vh i   s  . oxf   or  d  j   o ur n a l   s  . or  g /  D o wnl   o a  d  e  d f  r  om  fortunes of shrimp and petroleum in this particular region do not ad-here to a convenient story about environmental decline. The threat tothe local survival of these industries came not from oil-driven environ-mental degradation and resource depletion, as often implied, butfrom global competition and industry migration.The story is mainly about the sclerosis of a community too deeplytied to the extraction of two conjoined natural resources to adapt tochanging circumstances. Like many extractive economies, theMorgan City shrimp and petroleum industries were characterized byhigh fixed costs in specialized infrastructure and geographic con-straints that made them especially vulnerable to the vicissitudes of commodity prices and outside competition. The development of shrimp and petroleum also produced social inertia. The designationof “offshore” as a zone of white male privilege hardened racial andgender lines, weakened the community’s resiliency, and inhibited itscapacity for diversification.Examining the development of intersecting extractive technologiesin a marine environment, an example of what Helen Rozwadowskiand David van Keuren call the “machine in Neptune’s Garden,” thisessay contributes to the project of “historicizing the ocean” by bring-ing a new subject, that of oil, to a field dominated by work on fisher-ies. 6 It also builds on insights from envirotech historians who explorethe “illusory boundary” between technology and nature, where “themachine has become entwined not just with the garden but with en-tire ecologies, social and natural, and it is not always clear where themachine ends and nature begins.” 7 This essay foregrounds the social and labor dimensions of environ-mental and technological change, especially race, gender, and the or-ganization of work, which envirotech and fisheries historians hesitateto analyze explicitly. 8 Accounting for the rise and fall of Morgan Cityas the self-proclaimed capital of shrimping and offshore oil requiresclose attention to the work of shrimpers and oilers. As Richard Whitewrote in  The Organic Machine , “it is our work that ultimately links us,for better or worse, to nature.” 9 That link was also important to forg-ing a community identity based on the union of these two forms of extraction that has outlived the local prosperity of both. THE BUSINESS OF SHRIMP The notion that shrimpers had lived cloistered in parochial com-munities, “guided by values outside the marketplace” before oilmenintroduced market forces and competition, is erroneous. 10 The imageof the subsistence shrimper working in rhythm with the natural cycleof the shrimp run belies the technologies, regulatory controls, and Environmental History 214   b  y g u e  s  t   onM a  y2  6  ,2  0 1  6 h  t   t   p :  /   /   e n vh i   s  . oxf   or  d  j   o ur n a l   s  . or  g /  D o wnl   o a  d  e  d f  r  om  long-distance supply chains that have shaped shrimp harvesting fornearly a century.Compared to other kinds of marine harvesting, commercialshrimping in the United States is not that old. Cajuns and others insouth Louisiana had long fished for small brown shrimp in shallowlakes, bays, and estuaries along the coast. They used seine netsdragged from lugger-style fishing boats or they waded on foot withnets into the mud. Until the late nineteenth century, shrimp was har-vested not for human consumption, but largely as fish bait sold in lo-cal markets. When humans developed a taste for shrimp, Louisianansbegan selling their catch in distant markets. In the early 1900s, theylearned drying techniques from Chinese immigrants and experi-mented with selling dried shrimp packed in barrels. Drying platforms,however, were susceptible to damage from floods and hurricanes.Americans, meanwhile, never took to eating dried shrimp. 11 Canned and fresh-frozen shrimp overtook dried shrimp as a market-able commodity. By the 1920s, the expanded use of ice for preservingand transporting seafood, improved methods of canning, and con-sumer acceptance of canned foods led to a boom in the sale of cannedLouisiana shrimp in East Coast markets. Canneries and processorsowned boats and hired large crews to run seines while a few fishermenowned their own operations. To prevent overharvesting and deple-tion, the Louisiana Department of Conservation in 1930 establishedclosed seasons on shrimp fishing and a minimum marketable shrimpsize. Commercial shrimping thus relied from the beginning on salesto a national market, wage labor, and state-enforced conservation. 12 By the mid-1930s, three developments had transformed shrimpinginto big business and elevated “the shrimper” into a cultural icon inMorgan City and the neighboring towns of Berwick, Patterson, andAmelia. The first was the adoption of the otter trawl, a large cone-shaped net with weights and skids that was pulled along the sea bot-tom to collect large volumes of shrimp. Otter trawls required rela-tively large investments, such as the modification of luggers withgasoline engines, but the benefits far outweighed the costs. Trawlersrequired less manpower, extended the range of shrimping, and en-larged the size of catches. 13 Otter trawls enabled many shrimpers to leave the employ of can-neries and work their own boats with one or two deckhands, oftenmembers of their own family. By 1930 fourteen hundred trawls pliedthe waters off Louisiana’s coast, harvesting an astounding 35 millionpounds of shrimp annually—mostly “white shrimp,” a species with awhite translucent color and green tail fins. 14 This was doubleLouisiana’s take ten years earlier, more than three times the haul of any other Gulf Coast or South Atlantic state. Across the state, twenty-eight large canning plants packed and crated the shrimp for rail trans-port to eastern markets. 15 Shrimp and Petroleum 5   b  y g u e  s  t   onM a  y2  6  ,2  0 1  6 h  t   t   p :  /   /   e n vh i   s  . oxf   or  d  j   o ur n a l   s  . or  g /  D o wnl   o a  d  e  d f  r  om
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