Seeking refuge before the storm: the needs of commercial fishers

By Lauren LandSustainability Coordinator, Louisiana Sea Grant College Program

Picture1A commercial fishing vessel is defined as a vessel with a commercial fishing license (either state or federal) whose purpose is harvesting a seafood commodity from Louisiana saltwater areas and selling that product in Louisiana. Commercial fishing vessels range in size from smaller crab boats to large, offshore shrimp boats. While Hurricane Rita was heading toward southwest Louisiana in September of 2005, the commercial fishing fleet in Intracoastal City was unsure of where to go (Figure 1).

Some vessels traveled up the Vermilion River, tied to trees along the bank and lashed two or three boats together for stability. A large number of shrimpers stayed on their boats during the event to “ride out the storm” at local shrimp docks. With engines at full throttle, most were able to hold position and keep the vessel in place, even during the height of the storm. Captains who left their vessels and evacuated came back after the storm to find their boats stranded on land (Figure 2). Eighteen shrimp boats were stranded. One vessel still lies on its side more than 30 feet from the water’s edge.

Picture1Figure 1. Louisiana borders the northern Gulf of Mexico. Intracoastal City is in the middle of the coastal zone, southwest of New Iberia. The Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW) runs west to east across coastal Louisiana. The Vermilion River provides navigation from the GIWW to points north of Intracoastal City. (Image Credit: Google Earth)

Picture1Figure 2. Vessels grounded on the land after Hurricane Rita. (Image credit:

In the Vermilion Bay region of coastal Louisiana, no plan exists for commercial fishers to seek protection from storm damage and to prevent their vessels from becoming water-borne debris during a storm. Methods of tying to old oak trees on the banks of the Vermilion River or tying to other boats creates stress on the lines. As a result, storm tides carry fishing vessels onto private property, and when the tides recede, the boats stay grounded on private property. In the aftermath of Hurricane Rita, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Navy contracted with salvage companies to refloat stranded boats that were still seaworthy or dispose of those that were not. That process took years and millions of dollars to accomplish. The total cost for vessel and debris removal for Katrina and Rita was approximately $294 million (FEMA Debris Subject Matter Expert, pers. communication). In 2014, the question still remains, where is there a suitable place along the Vermilion River for commercial fishing boats to seek harbor of refuge during storms? Such locations are needed to prevent vessel damage and vessel groundings, which create obstacles for hurricane response and recovery.

Seeking Solutions: The “Safe Harbor” Master Plan Project

To begin to address the issue of mooring locations for commercial fishing vessels, the Port of Delcambre, in conjunction with Louisiana Sea Grant, received funding through FEMA’s 2012 Community Resilience Innovation Challenge, which targeted projects intended to increase community resilience around the nation. We proposed to create a safe harbor master plan by quantifying how many vessels need safe harbor spaces, evaluating local waterway capacity to accommodate vessels in the short term, and producing maps of suggested locations to install moorings and pilings in the long term.

We quickly learned that “safe harbor” is a misnomer because no place is ever safe from hazardous events on the water. “Harbor of refuge” is a more appropriate term. The harbor of refuge project contributes to community resilience because it seeks to organize a plan for vessels to moor during a storm, ensuring that those vessels sustain little damage and remain operational. The advantages of providing storm anchorage to the commercial fishing fleet are obvious. Of primary concern is the safety and wellbeing of the fishers themselves and the protection of their vessels. In addition, a harbor of refuge plan will protect employment and commerce in the region. When fishing vessels sustain damage during a storm, the effect ripples downstream by impacting small businesses through fishers, seafood processors, wholesale distributors, and restaurants. Loose vessels also create destructive barriers on roadways and bridges, disrupting total commerce. A harbor of refuge plan will minimize damage to equipment and disruption to employment, thereby increasing community resilience. The following article presents a brief summary of the project to date, which demonstrates a process to achieve community participation through engagement with local, state, and federal stakeholders to seek solutions to a costly problem.

Establishing the Problem: Meetings with Stakeholders in Vermilion Bay

One of the initial steps of any Sea Grant project involves communication with and engagement of communities and their stakeholders (Figure 3). For this project, we held an initial meeting of Sea Grant personnel, directors of local emergency management agencies, port representatives, and several commercial fishers and dock owners in order to understand how ports and fishers have handled previous hurricane forecasts. After this initial meeting, we met with individual ports in the area to discuss more specifically the issues facing commercial fishers on the west side of Vermilion Bay prior to a hurricane.


Picture1Figure 3. The Harbor of Refuge project team talks with state and federal agencies. (Image credit: Paula Ouder, LA Sea Grant)

Each commercial fishing vessel represents a small business, so shrimp captains hesitate to stop shrimping early. Twenty-four hours before hurricane landfall, shrimp captains scramble to unload their catch, make sure their deckhands evacuate their families, and tie down their vessels. Vessel owners don’t leave enough time to travel east or west to seek shelter in a port where there might be slips and moorings for boats to access. Instead, commercial fishers take their boats up the Vermilion River, tie down to trees on the riverbank, and hope for the best. Storm surge carries boats further upriver or over the riverbank onto private property, and vessel owners have a difficult time getting back to their boats when the waters recede. Too often in the past, storm waters have receded before vessel operators return to their boats, which results in grounding the vessels on dry land.

We also met with state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Coast Guard, to discuss the problem of harbor of refuge as a huge issue that costs the state a lot of money in post-hurricane debris cleanup and as a challenge for communication and coordination between ports, commercial fishers, and emergency management agencies.  No state agency has jursidiction or authority over the issue of providing harbor of refuge locations for commercial fishers. In addition, FEMA mitigation money and public assistance funds cannot be applied directly to privately owned land or businesses. In an environment where most of the land and docks are privately owned, there is no easy way to use federal or state grant dollars to update infrastructure for docks and pilings.

Fishers carry full responsibility for heeding storm warnings from the Coast Guard and for seeking safe places to tie down their vessels. One challenge that became clear after these meetings is that no “one size fits all” approach exists for creating a harbor of refuge plan for the Vermilion Bay region. Each canal coming off the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW) is unique in its environmental makeup, its shoreline stabilization, and its bank land ownership status. Fishers will take their boats to the closest and safest spot available; therefore, each fisherman needs to have a hurricane plan and needs to be able to find out which locations have space available for docking. The harbor of refuge project team seeks to identify waterways where fishers can legally dock or to talk with private landowners about setting up agreements for fishers to tie down their vessels.

Survey Results: Commercial Fishers in the Western Vermilion Bay

One of the needs identified in stakeholder meetings involved understanding historical storm evacuation practices for commercial fishing vessel operators and needs for harbor of refuge. Sea Grant distributed surveys to commercial fishers in the western portion of Vermilion Bay to gather information on recommended heights for safe moorings and historical evacuation practices for storms including Hurricane Rita (2005) and Hurricane Ike (2008). Thirty-six fishers responded to questions regarding storm evacuation practices for Hurricanes Rita and Ike. The majority of fishers (73%) took action to evacuate their boats before hurricane landfall: 4-6 days before Rita and 3-4 days before Ike. Even though fishers reported a variety of locations in which to take their boats, the majority chose to dock in Intracoastal City, which is where most of their seafood business transactions take place (Figure 4). In general, the majority of respondents indicated that there is no “safe” location to offer protection for fishing vessels when a storm is in the forecast. Taller moorings will prevent the storm tide from carrying vessels onto land and grounding them after the tide recedes. Recommended height for safe moorings ranged from 10-15 feet. If a public dock or safe harbor location existed specifically to offer safety to commercial fishing vessels, then fishers would take their boats to that location in advance of a storm making landfall. One factor to consider is how fishers will return to their boats after a storm. Road access or a ferry system between vessels and the shore is critical for fishers to be able to return as soon as possible after the storm.

Picture1Figure 4. Dockside pilings in their current state are not tall enough to accommodate storm surge. (Image credit: Lauren Land, LA Sea Grant)

The following comments and suggestions were often repeated:

  • Mooring fishing vessels up the Vermilion River is safer than staying in Intracoastal City during a storm.
  • Storms tracking to the south and west of Intracoastal City will result in a tidal surge of 3 to 10 feet and possibly more.
  • Storms that track to the east of Vermilion will cause only slightly higher tides or even low tides.
  • Vessels of similar length will lash together side by side to gain stability for all.
  • Several mooring points on land are needed to maintain position as winds shift during a storm.
  • Large trees have been used in the past but are subject to being damaged or uprooted either by the storm or by the boats tied to them (Figure 5).
  • Fishers would prefer to have mooring points on land as well as tall pilings in the water spaced far enough to allow several boats to tie abreast and also tie to the tall pilings.
  • Storm anchorage in the Vermilion River is preferable to other locations to the east or west along the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway.
  • Large shrimp vessels can draw as much as 10 feet if their hold is full of shrimp or if they have a full tank of fuel.

Picture1Figure 5. A large Live Oak tree has been uprooted because several vessels have tied to it. (Image credit: Lauren Land, LA Sea Grant)

It is recommended that the appropriate state and federal agencies develop a suitable site along the Vermilion River for commercial fishing vessels to seek shelter from storm events. The site would be utilized only during declared emergency situations. Agencies interested in developing a safe anchorage site should seek the input of a committee of fishers to address the location, design, use, maintenance and other factors. Information about the property owners of proposed sites is needed for future planning and potential solutions, such as lease agreements with private landowners for vessel tie-down.

The Numbers: Commercial Fishing Vessels in the Vermilion River and Delcambre Canal

Another need identified from the stakeholder meetings was to identify the number and size of commercial fishing vessels needing harbor of refuge.

For the Vermilion River, the project team created and analyzed various datasets to quantify the number of commercial fishing vessels that travel the waterways. Data was collected from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Marine Fisheries Service as well as the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Social Research Division. Based on these datasets, it is reasonable to plan for a maximum number of 220 commercial fishing vessels needing harbor of refuge in the western Vermilion Bay region. For the most part, these vessels are evenly split among the 20’, 40’, 50’, 60’, 70’, and 80’ length classes, with some exceptions. The average draft of the larger vessels is ten feet. This information helps determine the number of pilings needed and the spacing required between pilings to accommodate a large number of vessels.

Cost for Debris Cleanup and Vessel Removal after Hurricanes

The Coast Guard estimates that the cost to remove debris was $65 to $75 per cubic yard after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita (pers. communication). The cost varies greatly for vessels – from $35,000 for a submerged small fishing vessel to $8 million for a large barge. Vessel removal depends on the size and type of vessel (wood, metal, or fiberglass), how much fuel is needed to retrieve the vessel, the location of the vessel and access to remove the vessel, and the presence of hazardous substances on that vessel. Sometimes it can take 50-60 days to remove a vessel, if hazardous substances are present.

Estimated Cost for Harbor of Refuge Mooring Infrastructure

What might the estimated cost be to install additional mooring infrastructure to provide harbor of refuge to commercial fishing vessels to avoid almost $300 million in vessel cleanup and debris removal? Many variables feed into the answer. Mooring design requirements depend on vessel size (i.e., length and weight) and the location of the piles. Locations further inland and out of the waterway provide a more stable soil bearing, therefore requiring shorter piles and lower cost. Other factors to consider include the mobilization cost per project per location (i.e., cost to get equipment, material and labor to the site). In general, more remote sites mean higher cost for mobilization. The mobilization cost is normally applied across the entire project, so economies of scale are important to consider. In order to develop accurate cost estimates, specific parameters need to be identified, including the number and size of boats, the spacing required between clusters, and the location of the piles. Next Steps for Harbor of Refuge

The Community Resilience Innovation Challenge helped identify the next steps to achieve harbor of refuge for the commercial fishing fleet, including:

  • Identify private landowners to approach to discuss lease agreements for additional mooring infrastructure
  • Identify funding streams for infrastructure improvements
  • Conduct a feasibility study of the cost to construct and install additional mooring infrastructure
  • Produce architectural and engineering designs of additional mooring infrastructure
  • Include harbor of refuge as an update to local hazard mitigation plans
  • Install waterway signs to communicate harbor of refuge information to commercial fishers
  • Develop materials for fishers on safe storm practices and preparedness procedures (i.e., hurricane evacuation plan, vessel tie-down methods)
  • Increase communication between commercial fishers and federal, state and local government agencies for hurricane preparedness

Picture1Figure 6. Shrimp vessels docked in Intracoastal City during calm weather conditions. (Image Credit: Lauren Land, LA Sea Grant)

Overall, solutions to the harbor of refuge problem do exist for the commercial fishing fleet. Increased communication between private landowners, commercial fishers, local governments and the state is necessary to identify alternative strategies to providing harbor of refuge. In addition, developing a hurricane readiness and evacuation plan that offers alternative locations for vessel tie-down with each fisherman will help change years of learned behavior. All of this work is in the effort to build community resilience and enhance disaster recovery so that fishers can resume business as quickly as possible and sustain their families and communities in the Vermilion Bay region of Louisiana (Figure 6).

Lauren Land is Sustainability Coordinator for the Louisiana Sea Grant College Program, where she’s been since March 2012. Her research focuses on community resilience to hazards as it relates to ports, waterways, and waterfront communities. Lauren is based at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and is working towards her PhD in the Department of Geography and Anthropology. Email: