by Gwendolyn Knapp, Photos by Cate Colvin SampsonThe boats in the Hardrock Shipyard look like they’re practically keeling over in the heat, all ribs and burnt out bodies receding into the sand lot on a scorching June day in Lafitte, Louisiana. It’s too hot for jeans and a back brace, but Jackov Jurisic seems to be pulling it off, content in the midday sun. There’s a huge smile on his face as he inspects his new boat, The Captain JJ. It’s Jurisic’s third and, likely, last oyster boat, propped up in the air and receiving a fresh coat of paint.
Cicadas chatter in waves from the surrounding bushes, and somewhere close by a large piece of machinery is making a monstrous clanking sound, but Jurisic is quiet. A third-generation oysterman of Croatian descent, he is not the type to boast or even talk about himself much.
“I’m just a regular guy,” he says. “That’s all I can say — somebody who came here in pursuit of a better life.”
And while he loves oysters, he says that working as an oysterman is like playing roulette, a game Jurisic came to play in 1977 like many Croatians before him. His own grandfather arrived in the early 1900s to work out of Plaquemines Parish, as did his father in 1959, both returning to their village of Duba a few years later.
Today, 70 percent of oysters in America are reportedly sourced from the Gulf Coast, and it’s the state’s Croatian immigrants that Louisiana has to thank for its $317 million oyster industry. The LSU College of Agriculture credits Luke Jurisich, a pre-Civil War era Croatian immigrant, also hailing from Duba, as being the first person to actively cultivate oysters in Louisiana. It is said that early Croatian fisherman saw great similarities between the oysters found in the estuaries near the mouth of the Mississippi and the Gulf and those found off the shores of the Adriatic Sea. Over the last 150 years, these immigrants have contributed more to the oyster industry than most people realize, from understanding the science of how salinity affects oyster growth and taste to inventing the oyster dredge and more.
“Post harvest-processing?” Jurisic says. “Croatians created that.” Even New Orleans’ beloved chargrilled oysters were invented by the Cvitanovich family at the local seafood eatery Drago’s.
Jurisic had been out of the military in Yugoslavia for three years and living with his parents when he first came to Louisiana nearly 40 years ago. He didn’t know any English, but he did have relatives in Plaquemines Parish — a commonality he shares with many Croatian oystermen who landed here in the 20th century.
Once his mother’s first cousin picked him up from the airport, Jurisic knew what it was he wanted to do: make money and return home. He immediately got hired on a boat and went to work.
One night he attended an oystermen’s dance in Buras. There he met DeeAnna, a sweet Cajun girl from Port Sulphur, whose sisters both happened to be married to Croatian oystermen, albeit of no relation.
“She took me prisoner and I’ve been held hostage ever since,” Jurisic says.
It actually went more like this: “Jacko” proposed to DeeAnna in a shipyard in Empire in 1981 while she was painting her brother-in-law’s boat, up to her eyeballs in copper paint. Her grandparents, learning that Jacko was living on an oyster boat that wasn’t even his, invited him to stay in their spare bedroom.
Croatians, DeeAnna explains, are family people. It’s a claim that’s backed up by history. The book Yugoslavs in Louisiana notes that for many early Croatian settlers finding wives was a key to bettering their way of life, which included extreme conditions at oyster camps with relentless mosquitos and storms, meager hardtack dinners, “physical labor from dawn to dusk” and, of course, terrible longing. While some oystermen brought wives over from Croatia, the ones who married local women also helped to create the culturally rich fishing communities that now exist in Plaquemines Parish.
By 1982, Jurisic had his first oyster boat and was making an honest living. DeeAnna finished college and went to work as a teacher. They started a family. Jacko would read books to his little girls, which helped him learn to read and speak English. DeeAnna noticed that there was a specific, almost metallic oyster scent that never left his clothes after washing them.
“Smells like money to me,” her grandmother told her.
By the early ‘90s, Jurisic had his second boat, the Vinka Ann, and was in the heyday of his oyster business, with record-breaking years for oyster hauls in Iberia and St. Bernard parishes. But in 2005 Hurricane Katrina dealt them a near fatal blow.
“Tying up my boat, saying goodbye to it,” he says. “That was the scariest day of my life.” It was about 3 a.m. when he left home. The weather was as calm as can be. Jurisic drove to Empire to tie his boat up and get his papers. He knelt on the ground and said a prayer. He kissed his boat and evacuated to Lafayette.
“If you ask me to compare what was hardest for me, to leave my mother and father and the place where I grew up, or that day,” Jurisic says. “I’d probably say that day. We worked for all those years, side by side. It was all about to be gone. Destroyed.”
He was lucky in one respect though— he’d tied his boat up in such a way that it was able to float over the pilings and land upright on a dock. Other boats on the canal took pilings through the bottom. There was fiberglass and wooden debris everywhere.
Still, DeeAnna says, “We can’t ever say Katrina was horrible to us. We lost everything but we still had our lives and we still had our hands to work, so you just get on with it.”
Her own parents had been through Hurricanes Betsy and Camille with five kids, losing their home twice in four years. Even their hometown of Buras owed part of its history to a massive hurricane in 1893, which killed over 200 Croatian fishermen and decimated oyster camps in Bayou Cook so horribly that many survivors moved closer inland.
Historically, Louisiana oysterman have relied on public seed grounds to obtain seed oysters and transport them to their own private grounds, where they’ll grow them into cultivated oysters (the ones you eat raw), or they can also build up their private beds in hopes that drifting oyster spat propagates there naturally. At 62, Jurisic was unsure if he should build The Captain JJ and invest more in his business or just retire.
“The thing about oyster grounds is if they are not productive, nobody is going to want to take them because you have to pay the rent no matter what, okay? So, I guess the plan is to make them productive as much as possible, and then see after that point where the road takes me.”
He pulls up a video on his phone, a giant barge with a huge machine spitting out 5,200 tons of limestone onto some 360 acres of leased water bottom he’s hoping will become rich with oyster spat this year. This isn’t part of a state-funded rejuvenation project. This is out of pocket.
“It’s the first thing on my mind,” he says. “And any action in the Gulf could ruin it.”
Still he seems relaxed. He’s focused on getting his boat in the water. He still has the Vinka Ann down in Empire too, but he doesn’t go out to check on his oyster grounds as often as you’d think. He has friends working the area who look out for him. “It’s like checking on the rain,” he says, “If the grass is not green in your backyard, I can’t expect the grass to be green in my backyard.”
It’s that form of camaraderie and endurance that seems to define the Croatian oystermen, even as the industry continues to change.
Today Jurisic gives back as much as he can to the community, participating in various oyster advocacy groups, including the Oyster Task Force, which keeps a watchful eye on oystermen’s rights. He makes annual trips to Washington, DC to speak to lawmakers about the issues surrounding the industry.
“We’re up against a lot more than we used to be,” he says.
What keeps him going? He’s had a lot of help along the way, he says, and the only thing he can do is pay it forward.
His boat, for instance, is named The Captain JJ not only after himself, but also in honor of a local businessman, James J. Coleman, Jr., who he first met in Duba before coming to America. Coleman’s wife, also from Duba, had taken him there in search of her grandfather’s house. Jurisic befriended them and kept in touch.
When he came to America, he realized Mr. Coleman — known as “JJ” to his family and friends— was the owner of the billion-dollar corporation International-Matex along with real estate holdings, including Windsor Court and the Holiday Inn Downtown. Still, the Colemans pulled Jurisic in like family. Coleman offered him an interest free loan to pay off his first boat, and wrote him a check to purchase the Vinka Ann in 1985. All Jacko could do in return, he says, was offer to shuck oysters at their annual Christmas party.
A photo of Mr. Coleman will be hung on The Captain JJ when it’s ready to launch later this summer. For now, Jurisic takes in the paint job. He still has to haul the boat down to Empire, install insulation, do some carpentry and get the cabin fixed up. Another of his nephews, an electrician, has already hooked up the air conditioner so he can work on it comfortably in the July heat.
“I’d like to, at some point, retire,” Jurisic says. “Play music.”
“He was the music man of the village,” DeeAnna adds. “I’m gonna tell it to you like that. I don’t know if you ever saw The Godfather — how in the wedding they had in Italy there’s an accordion player in front and everybody else follows him through the village? Well, that’s Jacko.”
DeeAnna says that he recently bought a new keyboard, and he laughs. He may play and sing at a wedding here and there. They like to go to their Croatian American Society dances. There is talk of them vacationing in Hawaii, visiting Pearl Harbor. Maybe they’ll return to Croatia — if not to live, then just to visit. But that’s all off in the future somewhere. For now, Jurisic places a single hand on his boat — custom designed by fellow Croatian oysterman and engineer John Tesvich — and basks in the moment.
“I would like to think that there’s a life after being an oysterman,” he says.
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