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Gulf Coast fishing industry struggles to stay afloat during pandemic

Farms and fisheries hit hard by coronavirus
Farms and fisheries hit hard by coronavirus 09:46

CBS News is chronicling what has changed for the lives of residents of some of the biggest battleground states in 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The oldest continuously operating oyster company in the U.S., P & J Oyster Company, has been in the business of shucking oysters in New Orleans' French Quarter since 1876, and it has never experienced anything like COVID-19. 

P & J Oyster Company P & J Oyster Company, via Facebook

"We had Hurricane Katrina and two years later we had Hurricane Gustav and then, you know, three years after that, we had the BP oil spill. And I'm going to tell you, after being in this business, as long as I have there is nothing —, out of even those catastrophic things that we've dealt with —, like COVID," co-owner Alfred "Al" Sunseri told CBS News. "We had these terrible, devastating impacts on our business, but when they closed down restaurants to where you could not go inside. It's not really the most conducive thing for oysters."

P & J processes and sells oysters wholesale to restaurants and vendors across Louisiana. Sunseri has been in the family business for 41 years and has seven employees. He likened the March shutdown of New Orleans to "turning off the faucet," and said he was only able to reach 50% of his typical sales that month. In April, things were even worse — he only made 2% of his normal sales for the month.

 "It was just like a vacuum cleaner sucking the money out of the bank." Sunseri said.

There are more than 4,000 licensed commercial fisherman in the state, with over 500 people working in processing and dealing, according to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.  In a state known for its food, culture and tourism, the commercial fishing industry carries an economic impact of $2.4 billion. The oyster industry accounts for $317 million.

P & J Oyster Company, undated. P & J Oyster Company, via Facebook

Some companies, including Sunseri's, received financial assistance through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).  Lousiana businesses received over $5 billion from the program that was established by the CARES Act in late March. But Sunseri says "that money is long gone."

"It wasn't a lot of money. It wasn't enough to pay my insurance that was due at the end of April." He said. "But it has been able to pay all my employees because I never did stop paying, even though we didn't work, we kept paying everyone."

Even before COVID-19, the seafood industry was experiencing setbacks, among them the influx of imported seafood in the state.

"In the U.S., we get 90-plus percent of our seafood imported. So those are challenges not only to the marketplace, but maintaining a vibrant market and a sustainable market for the fishermen." Stan Harris President and CEO of the Louisiana Restaurant Association said.

The COVID-induced closures have eviscerated Louisiana's restaurant industry.  Restaurants are the state's biggest employers. In 2018, the state's restaurants made $10.3 billion in sales, according to the Louisiana Restaurant Association. Harris predicts the loss of revenue will set the state's dining industry back  by at least 25%.

Cindy Mandina is the fourth-generation owner of her family's restaurant, Mandina's, an Italian restaurant with a heavy emphasize on Gulf Coast seafood. Mandina buys her oysters from P & J, but admits that since the COVID-19 crisis, she has not been buying as much seafood. She said her company lost 50% of its sales in March and 80% in April because of  the city's requirement that restaurants suspend in-person dining services and only offer curbside deliveries.

Cindy Mandina (center) is the fourth-generation owner of her family's restaurant, Mandina's, an Italian restaurant with a heavy emphasize on Gulf Coast seafood. Cindy Mandina

Though she fell behind with her vendors, at least some, like P & J, gave her a break.

"P & J Oysters, I owed them two weeks or three weeks of bills," Mandina said. "They said, 'If you don't survive, Cindy, we can't survive. We're in this as a team. We're in this together.'"

When the city shut down, Mandina had to lay off most of her staff. For her, that was the "worst day of COVID."

The timing of the pandemic is also costing New Orleans, since its busiest season comes between October and June. Those are the months outside its hurricane season, and this is when most of the tourist attraction festivals and carnivals take place. The shutdown of the city at the height of its busiest season, with no sense of what to expect as the city gradually reopens is fueling the stress restaurant owners like Mandina face.

Some health experts are warning about a possible resurgence of COVID-19 in the fall, which Harris says would be the "death knell" for many restaurants.

"Restaurants, as a rule, don't file bankruptcy. They just close. They don't have the money to file bankruptcy. They just walk away" Harris said, "Let's say that the 1,250 non-chain restaurants in New Orleans went down to 900. Does it go back to 800 like it was pre Katrina? I don't know. It's possible. But, you know, in those cases then it hurts everything. It hurts banking. It hurts real estate, it hurts the tax base. It hurts employment."

"What I'm trying to do is I'm trying to survive. I'm trying to have a business for my 16-year-old son and my 12-year-old son or my niece and nephew so the fifth generation can take over this." Mandina said. "But I also want to take care of my employees, of my customers. What I like the most is I answer the phone now and I say, 'Hi this is Cindy, can I help you?'  And one of our regular customers he goes 'Cindy, just thank you for staying open.'"

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