By JAMES SAVAGE
The University of Louisiana at Lafayette has netted a $250,000 grant to help create a comprehensive economic development strategy for the state’s coastal seafood industry.
Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser joined UL Lafayette administrators to announce the grant from the the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board on Thursday. The money will enable University researchers to examine the seafood supply chain in seven coastal parishes – Cameron, Terrebonne, Lafourche, Plaquemines, Jefferson, Orleans and St. Bernard.
Last year, the University secured a $250,000 Rural Business Development Grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to conduct a similar study in Vermilion, Iberia and St. Mary parishes. That study ends July 1.
Nungesser, who oversees the seafood promotion board, called the latest grant to UL Lafayette “money well spent as we continue to identify what the seafood industry needs and where it is going.”
Dr. Geoff Stewart, an associate professor of marketing in the B.I. Moody III College of Business Administration, is lead investigator for the project. Like the previous study, it is a collaboration with the Washington, D.C.-based Meridian Institute.
The earlier, three-parish study included frontline conversations with municipal, parish and state leaders; with seafood producers, suppliers, and processors; and with chefs, restaurant owners and other consumers. That’s basically everyone “from boat to fork,” Stewart said.
Louisiana’s seafood industry has an annual economic impact of more than $2.4 billion. The state is the leading supplier of shrimp, blue crab, crawfish and oysters in the United States, and one out of every 70 jobs in the state is related to the seafood industry.
But the industry is threatened by labor shortages, shipping and storage shortcomings, and environmental hazards. About 10,000 fewer people work in the industry than a decade ago; Stewart said part of the decline can be attributed to younger people not wanting to go into family businesses or start seafood businesses of their own.
Connecting seafood producers to resources to alleviate these challenges is key to the industry’s survival and motivates the University’s widening examination, Stewart noted.
But assisting the industry is more than an issue of economy. “Seafood is part of our culture. It’s part of who we are. It’s part of what we do, and I don’t know anyone from Louisiana whenever they go out to tell the good news that doesn’t mention this industry. But the industry is not where it used to be.
“When you think about its contributions to our identity, our way of life, to our culture, to why people travel here, this is an important industry. In a lot of ways, it is taken for granted that it will always be there, but the numbers don’t lie. We see that the industry is hurting, and it needs some help.
“We do not want this project to end with a list of recommendations and just hand it off and say, ‘here, good luck,’” Stewart concluded. “We want to say, ‘here are some priorities, and here is the approach to take to rectify those needs.’”
Dr. Ramesh Kolluru, the University’s vice president for Innovation, Research and Economic Development, is a co-principal investigator on the supply chain project.
He said the latest round of funding gives UL Lafayette “another tool in our toolkit to see how we can mobilize investments into areas that need them to create opportunities. We are fortunate to have state leadership willing to have a conversation about how we can combine efforts and collaborate to improve economic opportunities for this vital industry.”
That fits into the University’s larger mission to conduct “research for a reason,” said Dr. Joseph Savoie, UL Lafayette president.
“But we also conduct research with a great deal of respect. Accompanying our respect for Louisiana, its people, history and environment, is a desire not only to understand our small part of the planet better, but to preserve the things that make it special.
“We certainly want to put seafood on our plates, in our boiling pots and bowls, but we also want to place it at the center of a larger economic development strategy for Louisiana.”