Op-ed: New Orleans Chefs Can Help the Gulf Coast Brace for Extreme Weather | Civil Eats

Op-ed: New Orleans Chefs Can Help the Gulf Coast Brace for Extreme Weather

A new project is underway to rebuild Louisiana’s Gulf wetlands and protect residents and ecosystems. Chef Dana Honn says it will require willingness to adapt on the part of local chefs and fishers.

Chef Dana Honn (left) and others walking on new land created as part of a Gulf restoration project. (Photo courtesy of the National Wildlife Federation)

Chef Dana Honn (left) and others walking on new land created as part of a Gulf restoration project. (Photo courtesy of the National Wildlife Federation)

It’s early in the morning when a text arrives posing a one-word question: “Scorpionfish?” Local fisher Lance Nacio of Anna Marie Shrimp has taken to messaging a group of chefs as he heads back to the dock in Bayou Terrebonne with the day’s catch.

As fast as possible, I punch in “all!” and hit send.

Nacio and his crew catch a stunning array of seafood, some targeted, some bycatch (i.e., non-targeted species). The scorpionfish is one of a number of species that would have been unlikely to make it onto menus just a few years ago; instead it would have been thrown overboard before the boat made it back to the dock. Fortunately, it’s delicious, and including it on a menu helps take a little pressure off of heavily targeted species like tuna and red snapper. This shift is just one small example of our region’s capacity for cooperation, creativity, and adaptation.

A scorpionfish dish from Carmo. (Photo courtesy of Dana Honn)

A scorpionfish dish from Carmo. (Photo courtesy of Dana Honn)

As the chef-owner of Carmo in New Orleans, I’ve been thinking a lot about adaptation recently. The pandemic has forced many of us in the restaurant world to pivot repeatedly just to survive. In addition to making the switch to delivery and pick-up, as so many restaurants did, we created a program that served free meals to people facing food insecurity and provided more than 1,000 people with several thousand free meals during the peak of the pandemic.

We’ve been lucky. These adaptations have allowed us to bring back most of our staff—and to keep them safe. In my wildest dreams, this is not what I envisioned for my business, but we are making it work.

When I came to New Orleans 16 years ago, I knew I didn’t want to open just any restaurant. I wanted to create a place that paid homage to the tropics. I had spent time living in Brazil and traveling around Central and South America. What I discovered there is that more than 80 percent of the foods found on any given plate, from chocolate to chickpeas, originate in the tropics, the subtropics, and the surrounding waterways.

These areas are now facing the greatest climate threats—a struggle that we in Southeast Louisiana know all too well. Disruptions brought on by rising temperatures and more extreme weather, including last year’s unrelenting hurricane season, have become the norm. And man-made disasters, from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, continue to force us to rethink our approaches to food, our access to resources, and our very survival as a city. With hurricane season commencing and NOAA projecting a harsh year—and at a time when sea level rise is posing an existential threat to New Orleans and many other coastal cities—we must look to our past and plan for our future.

Louisiana is losing land at a rate of roughly one football field every 100 minutes, amounting to a total land loss the size of Delaware since 1932. These disappearing wetlands provide critical storm surge protection as well as habitat for the seafood that our region is renowned for. Cut off from freshwater sources by the levee system, our estuaries are become increasingly saline. There’s an edge effect here, with seafood availability initially soaring as fisheries approach collapse. Food and hospitality are cornerstones of our identity. They are also critical to our economy, employing nearly 93,000 people and generating $9.1 billion for the city of New Orleans annually.

As the city and state begin to reopen, we find ourselves standing on the precipice of a major project to help protect our land, our wildlife, our food, our communities, our economy, and our very way of life. The Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion is the largest individual ecosystem restoration project in our country’s history, which is fitting since the Barataria Basin is experiencing one of the highest rates of land loss on the planet. This project seeks to harness the Mississippi River’s naturally occurring sediment to rebuild Louisiana’s Gulf wetlands and protect us from increasingly extreme weather.

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It’s a plan that the majority of scientists believe can work. But it doesn’t come without costs—and much of that sacrifice rests squarely on the shoulders of our independent commercial fishers of saltwater dominant species. This is an all-too-typical scenario in which short-term gain is pitted against long-term sustainability. We have the opportunity to flip that narrative. There will still be plenty of seafood, but it will be in different places and some species will be more abundant than others.

The majority of the fishing community recognizes that doing nothing isn’t an option. In order to move forward, we must work together. A big part of that means providing fishers with the monetary, technical, and regulatory resources and tools they need to adapt as we move from passively watching our coastal estuaries rapidly disappear to actively rebuilding a more fertile and certain future. These mitigation strategies must be undertaken in partnership with the communities most impacted. They include close monitoring of the diversion’s impact on fisheries and direct investment in equipment that will allow people to fish in new ways and in new waters. We also need to build stronger, more flexible local seafood markets, and chefs must continue to include lesser-known species on our menus.

Birds flock to the Barataria. (Photo credit: Kelly Wagner, NWF)

Birds flock to the Barataria. (Photo credit: Kelly Wagner, NWF)

I had the opportunity to witness the Mississippi’s land building power firsthand a couple of years ago down in Plaquemines Parish. The river broke through its east bank during the flood in 1973, allowing freshwater, mud, clay, and sand into starving wetlands. As a result, what had been empty water just a few years ago is now teeming with wildlife, as it must have been 300 years ago. This isn’t just about storm surge protection; it’s about increasing the amount of habitat for our treasured gulf species to reproduce. We must rebuild our wetlands to ensure the long-term sustainability of the bounty of Louisiana’s coast and the people that depend on it for their economic survival.

Change and resiliency are nothing new to us here in Southeast Louisiana. Arguably, they are ways of life that lie at our very core. So does cooperation. Sometimes I’m in my truck when Lance’s early morning text comes through, and Marcus over at Marjie’s Grill grabs the pink porgies before I can pull over. It’s fine; I can always adapt the day’s menu. The important thing is that, in our own small way, we are working together to create a more environmentally and financially sustainable future for everyone along the food value chain.

I chose this place for a reason, and I want to continue cooking for New Orleanians and the 19 million people who come here annually. Louisiana must act now to protect our home by moving forward with the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion and other priority restoration projects. We need to open our minds and our menus while holding government accountable to make sure no one gets left behind. Together we can do this, but we need to be cautious about how we do it. We must follow the science, ensure that the needs of our most vulnerable coastal communities are taken into account, and believe in our collective power to adapt. The alternative is that we lose everything.

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Dana Honn is the chef and owner of Carmo in New Orleans, Louisiana. Read more >

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