Making a Living on the Bayou After a Decade of Disasters

If it isn't the hurricanes, it's the oil spill: Those in the fishing industry are in a state of perpetual recovery.

Robert Campo Jr. on the live-bait boat he runs out of his grandfather's marina in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana. (Photo: Mary Grace McKernan)

Aug 17, 2015· 10 MIN READ
Laine Kaplan-Levenson is a New Orleans-based multimedia journalist. She is also a producer at WWNO, a National Public Radio affiliate.

SHELL BEACH, La.—On a warm Wednesday morning in early June, Frank Campo sits behind his desk, “shooting the bull,” as he puts it, with a fisher who has pulled up a chair after returning with the day’s catch. It’s not yet noon, but both Campo and his friend have already worked an eight-hour shift. Shielded from the hot Louisiana sun, they’re in the office at Campo’s Marina, the business where Frank, 73, has worked his entire life and that he’s owned and operated for the last 10 years. It’s a 40-foot, air-conditioned trailer parked on a sliver of land, with a dock on the bayou out back. Campo’s services an area of St. Bernard Parish called Shell Beach, about 30 miles southeast of New Orleans. Outside, Campo’s teenage grandson Nick is standing on the dock manning the gas pumps and sucking down a Big Gulp. He and a fisher are joking about who works harder. “You get here at four thirty in the morning and get to leave at six that night, if you’re lucky,” Nick says while chewing on his straw. “Days off include Christmas, Easter.…” The fisher cuts in. “Easter? That’s a half-day! Same with Thanksgiving.” “True,” Nick says, smiling, and looks down. “Man, we don’t get no days off.”

Campo says his is the oldest family-owned-and-operated marina in Louisiana. Since 1903, it’s been providing fuel, bait, and ice to commercial and recreational fishers hailing from or passing through this tiny village, many of its mobile homes raised up on pilings more than 10 feet high. “We sell all that stuff, and the advice is free,” says Campo. He’s serious. Since his grandfather, or “Paw-Paw” opened the store, he, then Campo’s dad, and now Campo have given customers and whoever else pops in tips on where the best fishing is that day. Says Campo, “A guy that catches fish is a happy fisherman, you know? He’s in a good mood, he’s tickled, like a golfer that hits a hole in one.” A happy fisherman means a happy Frank.

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The dependence is mutual. In such a tight-knit community, Campo’s Marina has gained the family real respect. People still talk about Campo’s dad, Blackie Campo, who was known as the “kingpin” of the neighborhood. “If you was rich, didn’t mean anything to him,” says Campo. “If you was poor, didn’t mean anything to him. Anyone that knew him thought the world of him.” Including Campo. Which is one reason why, past retirement age, he’s still running a business that has him working around the clock: "Sometimes I ask myself why the hell I’m doing it, but I promised my dad I would keep this place going and that’s the way it’s always been, so that’s the way it’s gotta be."

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The 24-7 work schedule isn’t the only challenge of running a bait shop in Shell Beach. People here are living on the edge: Most residents’ three biggest assets—house, boat, and business—are all outside the levee district built to create channels for barges and the oil and gas industry and to protect settlements, chiefly New Orleans. This part of St. Bernard Parish is known as the “outer end,” which means it gets more storms than New Orleans and other inland areas and is hit harder every time.

Hurricane Katrina damaged 100 percent of the roughly 25,000 homes in St. Bernard Parish, displacing about 68,000 people. Two years later, Hurricane Isaac damaged almost every home outside the levee protection system. These, along with the devastating effects of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, have left residents in a state of perpetual recovery. The communities have even repurposed the remains of one disaster to rebuild after another. These blows have forever altered the identity of the bayou communities, even throwing people out of more traditional industries such as fishing into the waiting hands of the oil and gas industry that caused one of them and arguably contributed to the others. Campo understands there will be another disaster to bounce back from, one that will redefine his home all over again: “We’ll see how it works out next time around, because there will be a next time.”

Frank Campo, 73, still runs the business his grandfather started in 1903. (Photo: Laine Kaplan-Levenson)

Campo has been working at the marina since he could walk, but he didn’t officially take over until after Hurricane Katrina hit. Like much of New Orleans, neighboring Plaquemines Parish, and St. Tammany Parish on the other side of Lake Pontchartrain, St. Bernard was wiped out. The whole parish was underwater, and almost everyone lost homes. “There was nothing left. When I tell you nothing, I mean nothing,” Campo remembers. “It was pretty sad. It was a hell of a reality check.” He has a brother who lived in Yscloskey, a village just down the road from the marina, until the storm. He and his son both lost their homes, so they decided not to rebuild and moved across Lake Pontchartrain to Covington. A lot of people followed suit: The population fell from nearly 65,000 in 2005 to under 15,000 in 2006 (it has since rebounded to more than 43,000). “When you got enough of it you got enough of it. You get blowed around so many times.…,” Frank says of his brother. But he wasn’t going anywhere. “I’m hardheaded. Blow me down—I just get back up. I’m not gonna let Mother Nature run me outta here. That’s not an option.”

He did get back up. After spending five months living on his boat in a town about 10 miles north called Violet, Campo came back to rebuild his home and the marina, both of which had been completely destroyed. He had no insurance and didn’t receive any government funds to rebuild. Instead, the community held a brass band benefit concert in New Orleans shortly after the storm and raised $20,000 that was put towards rebuilding the marina and other local infrastructure. For the first year, there was no operating business, just rebuilding. Shell Beach didn’t have its electricity back yet, so all the tools were powered by a generator hooked up to the back of his boat. He was used to being home base, but now the site of Campo’s Marina became the prime charging station, tool shed, and lunch spot for everyone in the area as residents pieced their lives back together. The bait shop occupied a much larger building before Katrina; Campo decided to place mobility before size in the reconstruction, and he built a trailer on top of bigger lumber pylons and protected it with aluminum hurricane braces. Most important, the building can now evacuate along with him the next time around.

Once the marina was up and running again, the sport fishers returned. But the commercial fishing industry felt more long-term effects of Katrina. So many people lost their boats, which sank into the bayou; many of these are still partially sticking out of the water, abandoned and useless. In 2006, only about half of the average number of commercial vessels were out working on the water. Those who saved their boats had no way to sell or distribute their products because of the destruction of the onshore infrastructure. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries’ 2005 preliminary estimates of losses to the state’s seafood industry as a result of Katrina were $1.3 billion, which represents about 40 percent of the industry’s annual total retail. The effects of saltwater intrusion alone (from the breached levees) cost Louisiana fisheries $142.2 million, according to a 2010 study published by the Journal of Sustainable Development.

The oyster reefs were beat up too. A report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration states that oyster landings in the three months following the storm decreased by about 54 percent from the 1999–2004 average during those months and remained 26 percent below average a year later. The numbers had started to rise, Campo says, when the Macondo well exploded in 2010, killing 11. “Before they really got a chance to come back, we wound up with the damn BP oil spill.”

Nick Campo, grandson of Frank, at the marina gas pump.
(Photo: Mary Grace McKernan)

Ask any fisher, oysterperson, crabber, or shrimper which hurt livelihoods more, Katrina or the spill, and you’ll get laughed at. Maybe they lost their home during Katrina; maybe their extended family was forced to split up and live farther apart than ever. But for those who make their living out on the water, that doesn’t touch going out to sea and coming home with nothing but melted ice in the cooler. This is when Campo really started to see his business drop. He says the oil wasn’t the worst enemy; it was the dispersant used to control and sink the oil so it wouldn’t spread to shore. “You know outta sight, outta mind?” Campo asks. “Well, they sunk the oil, and it sunk down to the oyster beds, and the oysters won’t catch on the natural beds like they used to before.”

For months following the spill, the entire seafood industry was shut down by the government over safety concerns. Fishers helped with the cleanup instead of doing their normal jobs. When the moratorium on fishing was lifted, the crab population seemed normal, but the shrimp and the oysters were depleted. Prices shot up; a five-gallon bucket of oysters that was $8 on the dock went to $33. A lot of people lost customers and went out of business. Those who stayed afloat were forced to cut back on production. Campo says the effects linger to this day. He works with Johnny Hailli from Prestige Oysters in Texas: “He’s got a lot of [oyster] ground over here. He had 45 boats working before the oil spill. Now he has three.”

In response, those fighting to stay in the oyster industry are building artificial reefs, mostly out of crushed granite or concrete. This forms the substrate on which oyster larvae attach and grow. The crushed rock connects Katrina and BP: Most of the stone comes from demolished slabs that served as house foundations before being ruined by the storm. The state doesn’t have the funds to build these artificial beds, so the folks who harvest oysters for a living are creating new reefs, many using BP settlement checks, to stay in business. “If it weren’t for the artificial reefs, there wouldn’t be anybody eating oysters, I’ll tell you that,” Campo says. But it’s expensive. Hailli of Prestige Oysters says the company just spent $2 million building reefs, and it will be three years before the first batch of oysters is ready to harvest. Like any investment, Campo says, this is a risk. “You put the stuff out there and cross your fingers and toes hoping you don’t get bad weather ruining what you did.” The alternative? Give up. Campo knows a lot of guys who sold their boats and went to work in oil refineries and chemical plants. If you’ve spent your life out on the water, this is an undesirable midlife career change.

Robert Campo and his son, Robert (aka 'Little Rob'), working on the Campos' live-bait boat. (Photo: Mary Grace McKernan)

That’s why Campo’s son (and Nick’s dad) Robert is still chasing shrimp to sell as bait at the marina. While Campo and his buddy talk indoors, he’s doing a run out on Bayou La Loutre in his shrimp boat. There’s not much of a deck aboard; most of it is carved out to accommodate a shallow square pool into which all the shrimp caught in the trawl net go. He sticks a smaller net into the pool and lifts up a bunch of dripping, wriggling shrimp to show off the day’s catch. He says it’s nothing to be excited about: “Instead of dragging for 1,000 pounds, we’re dragging for 100 shrimp! There used to be 30 boats in this bayou. Now there’s one: me.” Robert is all doomsday when it comes to the future of the seafood industry in Louisiana. He has watched all his friends and family suffer and sees the difference in stock himself. “This place?” he says with a chuckle as he flips over the net and lets the shrimp cascade back into the pool that is the floor of his boat. “This place is f---ing history.”

That doesn’t mean Campo’s is history. The marina doesn’t rely solely on the commercial fishing industry. Campo ’s dad sold fuel and bait almost exclusively to commercial fishers, and he knew all of them personally. The biggest change for the business since Hurricane Katrina is that now Campo sells fuel and bait almost exclusively to recreational anglers with huge gas-guzzling motors going for trout and redfish. “Fuel is fuel no matter who you sell it to, as long as you sell it” Campo says matter-of-factly. Fishing boats that used to burn five gallons of gas in a day’s work have been replaced with recreational guides that go through 50. “So we take up the slack on that end,” Campo says.

These anglers are his “bread and butter,” he says, but he doesn’t know any of them. Katrina made the shrinking Shell Beach even smaller as a community. Residents dwindled after Hurricane Flossy hit in 1956, wiping everything out for the first time. After that storm, only about 20 percent of the households returned. With each storm, the number has continued to fall, and what used to be year-round neighbors for Campo are now angling clubs that set up camp in vacation homes for the weekend. He misses his community: “We like to deal with commercial fishermen because that’s all our friends—people that you been dealing with for 40 years. You were dealing with their daddies, then their sons; now you’re dealing with the grandsons.” It’s not the same as servicing “walk-ins,” as he mostly does now. “At one time I could run up the road and stop to shoot the bull with three or four other people before I even got to Yscloskey. But now it’s not like that—there ain’t nobody there. It’s just over with, and that’s a big difference, you know.” But Campo has never lived anywhere else, and has never considered leaving. “I like it here,” he said. “It’s safe. You don’t even have to lock your doors down here. You don’t have to take your keys out your truck—you don’t have to do any of that type of stuff.”

The crew of the Campos' live-bait boat pulls up a net. (Photo: Mary Grace McKernan)

Campo is more optimistic than his son and hopes the artificial reefs take off and the oysters bounce back. But his biggest concern now is the health of the recreational fishing industry, which he says is subject to tighter regulations. Florida and Texas have new laws that limit the number of fish that can be brought home. Campo says this is bad news for the sport. People spend a lot of money to hire charter captains who bring them out for the day, so it needs to be worth it. “It cost you $600 to $800 to charter a boat. If you go out there and catch 25 fish, that’s a pretty damn good catch. But you drop it down to 10, people say, ‘Hell, I ain’t going out there for 10 fish!’ ” Stiff limits, Campo says, will kill the charter captains, and if they go away, “you’re gonna drive an oak stake through my heart.” Campo has at least 40 regular customers who are charter captains.

Campo keeps his finger on the pulse of the two industries that come through his door. He’ll do anything he can to keep the marina going for another hundred years and feels confident that his sons will take over, like he did for his dad. He’s happy to see his grandson Nick working for him, too, but can’t say whether or not he’ll be sitting there behind the desk by the time he’s 73. But Campo hopes it will be another 20 years before his sons take his place: “There’s no quitting—we don’t quit. We die on the job and let ’em haul us off. That’s a fact. That’s the truth.”