Shrimp and Petroleum: Work, Environment, and Culture in Louisiana’s Offshore Oil Industry

Saturday, January 5, 2013: 2:30 PM
Napoleon Ballroom D3 (Sheraton New Orleans)
Richard Tyler Priest, University of Iowa
On the Sunday before Labor Day in September 1936, the Morgan City, Louisiana unit of the Gulf Coast Seafood Producers & Trappers Association held a “friendly labor demonstration” featuring a parade of alligator hunters, shrimpers, crab fishermen, dock workers, and oyster fishermen.  The demonstration an annual event and evolved into a festival highlighted by the “Blessing of the Fleet,” where a local dignitary asked for God’s graces to be bestowed on the community’s fishing craft. 

            In 1967, Morgan City expanded the celebration to include the petroleum industry, adopting its present-day name, the Louisiana Shrimp and Petroleum Festival.  After World War II, the city had grown to become one of the central hubs for the offshore oil industry working in the Gulf of Mexico, and this marriage of shrimp and petroleum in the festival emphasized, according to the its modern organizers, “the unique way in which these two seemingly different industries work hand-in-hand culturally and environmentally in this area of the ‘Cajun Coast.’”  

            This paper analyzes how these two industries have evolved “hand-and-hand, but also in ambivalence, tension and, at times, outright conflict.  It will examine how the offshore and fishing industries have shared workers and environments, and how local and outside representations of the relationship between “shrimp” and “petroleum” shaped South Louisiana’s cultural identity.  Finally, it will look at how human-induced environmental change has increasingly threatened both shrimp and petroleum in this region, and thus the cultural identity of people living there.

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