Posted: 26 Jul 2010 10:01 PM PDT
In the summer of 2006, a year after Hurricane Katrina, a group of Louisiana commercial fishing families, traveled more than 1,000 miles to New York City to spread the word that Louisiana Shrimp was not just safe to eat, but a delicious and affordable American delicacy. Under the banner of the White Boot Brigade, the group even paid for their rooms at the Carlton Hotel with "Louisiana Gold" – wild caught shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico.
Four years later, the White Boot Brigade is again hearing a call to battle as commercial fishermen across the Gulf Coast struggle to sustain their livelihood and their culture. Closed fishing grounds, increased competition in open fisheries, and shrinking buyer markets resulting directly from consumer fears over seafood safety are financially strangling coastal communities – communities still recovering from the worst natural disaster in American history.
"What's interesting about this disaster is that its so very obvious that the most clearly effected community are the commercial fishermen families and their fragile economies that are still not rebuilt," says Richard McCarthy of Marketumbrella.org who helped organize the White Boot Brigade over a decade ago. "The unanticipated benefit is at least all eyes are on the fishermen."
McCarthy is the co-founder and Executive Director of Marketumbrella.org, an organization that is both the practitioner who runs the farmers markets, as well as the non-governmental organization (NGO), the think tank, that looks at the management, the evaluation, and the use of markets for innovated purposes. One of those revolutions is the White Boot Brigade, a self-described traveling shrimpers road show, hell-bent on sustainable harvests, cultural preservation, and business innovation.
Born and raised in a New Orleans, a city that values home-grown food and culture, McCarthy earned his masters degree at the London School of Economics studying sustainable development, international relations, and third world country development.
"The more I studied the more I realized it sounds an awful like home," recalls McCarthy. "The disasters have only reinforced that."
According to McCarthy, similar to many third world or caribbean nations, the Gulf Coast region or "Who Dat Nation" as he puts it, has a plantation economy based on agricultural mass production of a few staple crops and an over reliance on dangerous, centralized industries like oil making it more vulnerable to disasters – disasters from which it takes time to recover.
"Time is the greatest enemy to any fragile family enterprise that doesn't have the cash flow to withstand long periods of time without income," says McCarthy who believes most families will only be able to last six months. "I think every time fishermen go out of business, or an older fishermen dies, the craftsmanship that they possess doesn't get transfer to the next generation that becomes increasingly troubling because this is really the greatest asset of this industry- the knowledge the fishermen have of biome regions, the species, and the skills of how each boat is fine tuned."
McCarthy believes that even after the oil is contained, and the Gulf of Mexico is deemed clean, there will be a huge delay before Americans outside the Gulf region feel 100% comfortable buying seafood again. In his mind, the disaster is not over until the food system is restored and the seafood industry is stable.
"When disasters hit, people find unlikely partners," says McCarthy. "New leaders will emerge with new ideas, some will fail and some might be the future. I don't think the future is one thing. I think the answer is many different things."
A good leader is like a good gumbo, able to bring all people to the table. Richard McCarthy embodies both the knowledge, but more importantly, the passion necessary to lead the White Boot Brigade on its future battles to return Louisiana shrimp to American kitchens. The question is, will America follow?