Gulf oystermen bracing for livelihoods to go south

By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 19, 2010; 7:17 PM

POINTE A LA HACHE, LA. -- Earlier this week, Mihael Ivic, who is known as Misha for the name of his oyster company out of San Leon, Tex., cruised the marshes near wholesaler Eddie Kurtich's office in Pointe a la Hache to check on some of his oyster beds.

His son Michael pulled up and the older man immediately recognized that something was wrong. They'd been hit by oyster thieves, Michael told his father.

Michael leaves distinct red-white-and-blue poles to mark his beds, not the brown bamboo poles now sticking out of the water. Oyster thieves are always a problem, but with so many beds closed because of the oil spill, they're even more despised.

But the fact that they left their poles meant that a game warden may have been on their trail, because usually the poles don't get abandoned.

Earlier in the day, Michael and his brother Joseph used a 100-pound hand dredge to pull up a bucket full of oysters from 10 feet down in the marsh water. Only a few were dead -- from what, no one was sure. It could be there's too much fresh water in the marshes.

Riding back to port, the elder Ivic, 60, fretted about how he'll pay the 60 employees at his processing plant in Texas, plus those who work as captains and deckhands on his boats and oyster beds in Louisiana. His buyers, which include the Landry's food chain, owe him $400,000, enough to get him through a few more weeks of payroll.

Michael, 28 and eager to take over the business, noticed the stress his father is feeling. The father estimates they've lost $200,000 since the spill. They recently received $10,000 in a claim payment from BP.

"He gets depressed," Michael said of his father. "He complains about it. He tells me, 'I don't know what we're going to do.' He doesn't want to leave the business in debt for us."

Once back on land, at a Copeland's restaurant in Harvey over a lunch of blackened redfish, sweet potatoes and corn, Ivic's lawyer calls for an update. Ivic says he and his sons marked the oyster beds with white PVC pipe and orange tape.

"Everything is still alive for now," he said. "Call the divers and I'll have my sons meet them and take them out." That could cost him up to $5,000 a day, but he believes it will be necessary to show BP how much his oyster crop has been damaged.

Wholesaler Kurtich keeps a printout by his calculator of who owes him and how much. On his list is Mihael Ivic for more than $500,000.

This should be a busy, happy time of year for the Croatian Americans of Plaquemines Parish who work the bountiful oyster beds of southern Louisiana. But in gatherings around the parish last week, the close-knit community saw little but trouble -- even though BP has promised to set aside $20 billion to compensate people along the coast like the oystermen.

At a meeting Wednesday night in nearby Empire, about 100 Croatian oystermen and other local fishermen gathered at a small restaurant in a marina to voice their concerns to their parish president, Billy Nungesser.

He promised them that he was going to put their boats to work helping to clean up oil. Many complained that they had signed up for BP's Vessels of Opportunity program but never got a call back.

Farther up the peninsula in Port Sulphur, more than 100 parishioners gathered June 13 at the local Catholic church. Father Giordano M. Belanich of Croatian Relief Services in Fairview, N.J., was in town to deliver the special Mass for St. Anthony's Day. His 1 1/2 -hour sermon emphasized that modern technology had made man push his limits.

Afterward the flock gathered in a metal warehouse next door for a feast. They ate Croatian sausages, pasta with shrimp and crawfish, pasta with oysters, red velvet cake and chocolate cupcakes. A sound system played a mix of Elvis tunes and songs from the old country. They tried to be festive, but it was hard.

"We could lose our way of life," said Kuzma Petrovich, 71, and a third-generation oysterman in these parts. "It's difficult to put a price on that."

Braco Madjor, is a partner with wholesaler Kurtich on some deals and sells oysters to him, as well. He said he's losing $10,000 to $15,000 a day. "They don't have enough to pay what we're going to lose," Madjor told his friends at the gathering.

"Sure they do," said Mihael Ivic, hopefully.

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