We meet Captain Richie Blink at the Delta Marina in Empire, LA on a warm sunny day in May.
Blink, who grew up shrimping, studying the bayous, and wetlands, and is an experienced environmentalist, will be guiding our tour today. Blink feels that Chefs on Boats tours can be invaluable to fishers, chefs and restaurant staffs, and preserving the coast.
“First of all, it’s critical education for chefs and staffs to see where this incredible seafood is being produced, how our wetlands and coast are in danger and that there are ways to reverse coastal erosion and protect our fisheries and wetlands,” Blink says. “But also just importantly, the fishers can make the connection from fishing to the plate. To see and hear what their labor is producing.”
Before starting, Blink lays out a map of the Venice/Buras area of the Gulf of Mexico, showing where we’ll be traveling to.
The trip will be broken up into two parts, as displayed on the map. For the first half of the trip, we’ll be going to the Bayou/Gulf of Mexico to see some of the different fishing areas (i.e. shrimping and oysters) coastal erosion, and efforts to restore marshlands and oyster reefs.
The second half of the trip will take place east side of the Mississippi River and the main shipping channel. On this part of the trip, you’ll see natural and manmade restoration efforts, new land and wildlife.
To begin the first half of the trip, we go through the recently completed flood gates and head out into Adams Bay. Blink says that there is an increased salinity in the bay, which is ideal for growing oysters. Empire is the nation’s fifth-largest port in terms of seafood landings. Tempering this though is, as Blink points out, the large swaths of marshlands that have disappeared in the past few decades.
For many of the kitchen staffs, a Chefs on Boats trip will be their first opportunity to see firsthand where much of the state’s seafood comes from. That’s exactly the case for Joshua Russell, a line chef at Carmo, a Chefs Brigade member restaurant. In fact it’s his first boat trip ever and he sits on the deck wide eyed listening to Blink talk about coastal erosion and its various causes such as rerouting the Mississippi River and cutting off the depositing of rich sediment, the levee system, and oil drilling.
While out on this side of delta, there are numerous working shrimp boats and oyster boats. Blink refers to the area as the “Goldilocks Zone” because of the water’s perfect salinity for shrimp, oysters and numerous fin fish. On most trips, Blink will pull up to some of the boats and give the restaurant staffs a chance to board a shrimp or oyster boat and talk with the fishers. The chefs and cooks learn about the challenges facing fishers, what’s involved in harvesting the seafood, and how the area has changed in just a few decades. The fishers discover where their catches end up and how the various restaurants are using the shrimp, oysters, and fish.
It’s a natural connection between the two groups.
On the tour, Blink points to open water and describes how there were wetlands and oyster reefs there not long ago. But he also shows some of the ongoing restoration efforts for oyster reefs. One spot is the Lemon Tree site, a sacred area of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe that has a deep history of resistance and resilience. The tribe led the effort to restore this island with assistance from Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana (CRCL), a Chefs Brigade partner. Part of this restoration project included recycled oyster shells from New Orleans restaurants.
“The tribe showed incredible leadership on this project,” Blink says. “CRCL and others were happy to assist but none of it was possible without the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw.”
After a brief return to our starting point at Empire, Blink steers the boat through the navigational locks into the east side of the delta and into the Mississippi River. It’s immediately a noticeable change from the trip’s first half, because now we’re in freshwater with no oysters but plenty of alligators, various species of birds and other wildlife.
We cruise for a while, and Blink takes us to a new river cut, which he refers to as Avulsion Pass because the river is cutting or tearing away at the land. The cut is the result of, as Blink puts it, “physics at play” with the Mississippi naturally bending a different way.
The cut has occurred over just the past 30 months by Blink’s estimate and there’s already land growth with dense willow trees, birds, frogs, and ducks nearby where sediment is piling up.
“It’s the foundation of life,” Blink says. “It’s really the opposite situation from across the river.”
The trip continues with short jogs into newly forming bayous–some of which are manmade– where you’ll see giant cut grass, cattails, and birds, lots of birds, such as red-winged blackbirds and Ibises. And, believe it or not, cows. Cattle were raised in this area for many years, and there are now some remaining groups of them living in the wild. Russell is thrilled and shocked to see the cows and feral hogs.
“Before this, I would have only experienced stuff like this by watching a movie” Russell says.
The complete trip lasts around four to five hours, and Blink docks the boat back at Empire by early afternoon. Not too much time has passed but for Russell, the trip has been a revelation of sorts. He wants to get his own boat and continue learning about the Gulf and fisheries that supply much of what he regularly cooks.
“This has been incredible, and I’m so glad I did it,” Russells says. “Restaurant workers need to see this, feel it and find out more about the Gulf of Mexico. For me, this is just the beginning.”
To date, the CRCL program has recycled more than 10 million pounds of oyster shells, resulting in the protection of 7,000 feet of Louisiana shoreline and the creation of acres of reef habitat for wildlife.