The last time Venice shrimper Acy Cooper went looking for safe harbor in a hurricane, he almost found it in a Jefferson Parish jail cell.
It was late afternoon on Aug. 28, 2012, and Hurricane Isaac was about nine hours from landfall. Cooper and a dozen other fishermen had bounced around the area’s canals all day, running into closed gates and U.S. Coast Guard boats everywhere they tried to tie up.
They ended up joining another group in a slip just off the Harvey Canal near Boomtown Casino just as the wind began to pick up.
But within a half hour, armed Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office deputies arrived and told them what the Coast Guard had earlier: The canals were now a restricted area and they’d have to leave.
But the fishermen were through running.
“We definitely wouldn’t have made it anywhere else,” Cooper recalls. “We just said, ‘If you wanna take us to jail, then we just gotta go to jail. You can take us in, and we’ll leave the boats here.’ ”
After an hourlong standoff, the men were told they could stay if they remained with their vessels and left as soon as Isaac blew through. They rode out the storm, fortunate to have dodged a bullet, but today they remain just a storm away from going through the same experience all over again.
“We need a safe harbor,” said Cooper, who is vice president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association. “Right now, we have nowhere to go.”
The consensus among the fishermen is that whatever happens to their homes, they can’t afford to lose their boats because that’s how they make their living.
“If they can save their boat they can get their income … and get back to work and take care of themselves and their families,” said Robert Nguyen, an Empire fisherman who also translates for state and federal agencies when they deal with members of the Vietnamese community.
The fishermen’s predicament can be traced back to 2008, when Hurricane Gustav dislodged barges and ships throughout many of the local waterways, damaging the floodwalls in the Industrial Canal.
The Coast Guard responded the following year with tighter restrictions on what boats would be allowed to remain behind in a storm.
“We don’t want a vessel to break free and strike a levee or part of the system that protects the citizens of New Orleans,” explained James Gatz, the Coast Guard’s waterways management chief for New Orleans.
After discovering during Isaac that they aren’t able to just tie up anywhere in a storm the way they used to do, Shrimp Association members began meeting with government agencies and industry groups, but they have not been able to come up with even a temporary solution, let alone a permanent one.
Association President Clint Guidry said the area just inside the Hero Canal would be one option, but the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority has said it doesn’t want vessels near the levee.
Cooper said he doesn’t think vessels as small as trawlers will cause much trouble and that all they need is a place they can tie up.
“We just want to try to get a place where we know that we can go,” he said, “not just cross our fingers and say, ‘I might find a spot.’ ”
Another temporary option would be getting permission from business owners along the Harvey Canal to tie up at their property, but that’s proved to be difficult as well.
The upper canal is closed off as soon as the water level rises by 2 feet, and in the lower part of the canal, space is limited and businesses worry about liability, said Laurie Soileau, president of the Harvey Canal Industrial Association.
While a recent meeting between HCIA members and the fishermen produced no solutions, Soileau said the HCIA considers the issue open.
“We want to work with them because we recognize the value of the seafood industry and its economic impact on our state,” she said.
Lee Richardson, of the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, has been working with the fishermen as well. As state marine debris coordinator after Hurricane Katrina, Richardson worked alongside shrimpers who volunteered to help, and he said he feels they deserve a solution.
While there are safe havens to the east and west, they are either too far away or don’t have any space beyond what is used by fishermen already there.
“The motto of GOHSEP is get a game plan, and they can’t,” he said.
Richardson said Katrina, which destroyed thousands of ships in Venice and Empire, left an indelible mark on the industry there, and many remember the giant “boat ball” of hundreds of trawlers smashed together by the winds and storm surge.
“They carry that impression and that trauma with them when they see a hurricane coming,” he said.
Richardson, Cooper and the others say they will continue meeting with anyone they can to try to work out even a temporary solution, but no one really has an answer to the question of what they’ll do if a hurricane forms in the meantime.
Guidry said many will likely try to seek safe harbor just as they did before, whatever the consequences.
“Faced with a decision of saving their boat and spending a night or two in jail,” he said, “I don’t think it’s a hard decision for some of these guys to make.”
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter @Chad_Calder