Posted: Jul 26, 2010 7:42 AM by Sharlee Barriere
HOUMA, La. (AP) - As survival stories go, the Voisins have a
gem: It goes back more than 200 years ago when the first members of
their family to set foot on Louisiana soil weathered a monster
storm in spectacular fashion, clinging to their porch while others
were washed away.
It was the first test for the Voisins in Louisiana.
It would not be their last.
Over two centuries, there'd be more travails for the family. One
generation, then another, slogged through mosquito-thick marshes
and navigated around alligator-infested swamps as they fished,
trapped, harvested and, in recent decades, processed oysters on the
Gulf Coast. They thrived when times were good, struggled when they
were not, understanding that's part of the bargain when your
livelihood revolves around the water.
But 250 years or so after the first settlers in the family
arrived from Libourne, France, the Voisins are still here.
The reasons are many, but Kevin Voisin, an eight-generation
oysterman, prefers to keep it simple:
"We just got stuck in the mud," he says, "and we don't want
Now the Voisins face a new test of their mettle dealing with the
aftermath of the Gulf spill that spewed oil into the fish-rich
waters for nearly three months, squeezing the state's $2.4 billion
seafood industry - and the family's oyster business.
It's too early to tally the losses, but Voisin, vice president
of marketing at Motivatit Seafoods, is counting on one thing to
keep them afloat: the family's long record of tenacity.
"We survived Katrina, we survived Gustav," he says of two
recent giant hurricanes. "We've survived a lot of other things,
too. It started way back with Jean Voisin hanging on to a house
when most everybody around him died. I hope we'll make it. I think
if anybody does, it'll be us."
The Voisins (vwah'-sans) are the lucky ones, so far. Their
oyster harvesting and processing company - which produced 25
million pounds of the shellfish last year - lost 40 to 60 percent
of its business during the spill. If that sounds grim, consider
this: They're in far better shape than their competitors, many of
whom were forced to close.
"There's no explanation for why we're standing and so many have
fallen," he says. "I don't feel guilty because the battle is
The temporary fix - the July 15 capping of the well after tens
millions of gallons of oil oozed into the Gulf - was a relief for
Voisin, but no finale, by any stretch. Many oyster fishing grounds
remain closed, some of the shellfish are dead, folks are out of
work, and the future is uncertain, as is the destination of all
that brown oily goo coating the waters.
"There are just millions of gallons of oil out there and until
it's all gone, I won't feel better," he says. "We know all the
oil has to come ashore. We don't know what the next step is. Is it
inevitable? At this point, I think it is but who knows? "
Kevin Voisin has become the public face of the family business
since the spill.
He's been interviewed in French by media from France and Canada
and is on YouTube, talking about the disaster in English and
French. He's been approached about a possible reality TV show
("The Oystermen"?) and started a charity group that he says has
received about $60,000 in commitments for those hurt by the spill;
he's already helped a handful of people, including one worker laid
off when a rival oyster company had to shut down.
His group also has come up with a novel fundraising plan. It's
selling oil-tainted water in fancy bottles for an eye-popping
$1,000 each. (Voisin says he has shipped about 10 bottles; smaller
vials sell for $25.)
Voisin, 34, is part salesman, part student of history (he spices
his conversation with references to Teddy Roosevelt and
abolitionist Frederick Douglass). He's part spiritual seeker (he
was a Mormon missionary in Bordeaux, France) and part pragmatic
politician (he's on the Terrebonne parish council). And Voisin is a
full-time Cajun who lives, breathes, loves, eats and talks oysters
- he's lectured about them on five continents.
Now as he watches his industry struggle, his lament is a
familiar one. He is angry with BP, frustrated with the federal
government and anxious about what lies ahead.
"I don't think much of the nation understands - they think this
is about money and jobs," he says. "But it's beyond that. It's
about life. It's about who we are. ... The Cajun way of life is
fiercely independent - 'I'm going to take care of myself, you take
care of yourself.' ... Why? Because we live in a place with the
most glorious abundance of food. ... We've always been able to turn
to our surroundings to support us. Now our surroundings are
threatening us because of the oil."
Not that anyone is going hungry. But the spill has put a crimp
in the fishing industry in a state that ranks first in the nation
in producing shrimp, blue crab, crawfish and oysters, which are a
$318-million-a year business in Louisiana.
Only about a third of the shrimp, 20 percent of the crab and 20
to 30 percent of the oysters are being harvested, according to
Ewell Smith, director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and
The spill isn't just a financial drain, though; it's a public
relations black eye for the fishermen.
Those 85 days of video and photos - the billowing stream of oil,
the tar balls on beaches, the dead turtles - have created a false
impression for many Americans that the Gulf is closed and seafood
isn't safe, Smith says.
"The damage has been done and it continues," he says. "That
image has been burned in people's minds. It's going to take five
years to turn the perception around. How long are our fisherman and
processors going to be hanging on while we rebuild?"
Kevin Voisin wonders, too. He's noticed signs in stores
announcing that shrimp and other seafood come from Thailand or some
place else - any place but the Gulf.
"How are you ever going to overcome that?" he asks. "Even if
the oil fairy came tomorrow and erased all the oil out of the water
and magically everything was clean, there's been a hit in the
market. ... People are worried and I understand, I get it. That's
not what I would do, but I get it."
In reality, no one knows what impact the spill will have on the
oyster crop. But there are troubling signs.
Several Louisiana oystermen already have reported their crop is
dead. The state diverted fresh water into the estuaries, mostly
south of New Orleans along the Mississippi - the strategy was
designed to help keep the oil at bay but it also reduced the salt
content the shellfish needed to survive.
Oysters can tolerate small doses of fresh water for a few weeks
but after that, they'll begin to die.
It's also not just this year's crop at risk. There usually are
three seasons on oyster reefs - including those ready to harvest -
so if oil invades an area, an oysterman could conceivably be wiped
out through 2012.
Many oystermen aren't fishing now, either because the areas are
closed to harvest by state agencies, the markets are poor or
they've been hired by BP for the cleanup.
Voisin says he knows some folks don't want to work for the oil
company, and he doesn't fault them.
"It's like getting in a car wreck and saying 'Well, you'll
never be able to do your work anymore but we'll let you pick up the
pieces of this wreck for the rest of your life and pay you for
it,"' he says.
The Voisins harvest oysters on 10,000 acres spread over
3,000-square miles, mostly in western Louisiana, away from the
spill; about 60 percent of the grounds have been closed, so it's
unclear what, if any, damage has been done.
During Katrina, their crop was spared. "I had a lot of
survivor's guilt," Voisin says.
The Voisins were fishing even before Louisiana was a state. By
those standards, their oyster processing business is relatively
new, dating back less than 40 years.
Kevin's grandfather Ernest had fished with his father, Liness,
as a young man, but moved to California, where he worked for a
company that manufactured aerospace components. He was part of the
Apollo lunar-landing project, his grandson says, and developed a
training program to turn around failing plants. It was called
In 1971, Ernest returned to Louisiana and seafood. His new
company had a familiar name: Motivatit. By the time of Ernest's
death last year, it had become a $12-million-a-year business, with
almost 80 workers, selling oysters around the United States.
Kevin's father, Mike, and Mike's twin, Steve, own the firm; Kevin's
brother and sister also work there.
In coming weeks, the Voisins will assess their losses. But they
know the spill already has been devastating to many Gulf seafood
workers, some of whom will pack up and move.
"In order to feed your family, now you have to give up your
culture, you have to give up your home," Voisin says. "It's a
tough decision for people to make. There will be those who leave
and there will be those who'll stay and I won't be the guy who
decides who's right."
There's no doubt, though, what he'll do.
"We know how to deal with catastrophe," he says. "We're
resilient. It tells you why we like to kick back and have a good
time. We know it could all go away in a minute."
Kevin admits he's already thought ahead, wondering if his
10-year-old son, Michael Ernest, named after his father and
grandfather, will carry on the oyster legacy.
"The ninth generation to do this - that was going to be a
stretch already," he says. "I would love to see him get into
this, but I don't know. Two hurricanes and one oil spill later -
there's another part of me that says maybe he needs something that
doesn't come with all of this tragedy."