Attached to the Sea
Whether he’s putting oysters or cases to bed, Rob Popich puts the hours in
Published in 2021 Louisiana Super Lawyers magazine
By Katrina Styx on December 28, 2020
On non-school days in the early 1990s, a teenaged Rob Popich’s days started at 3 a.m. He and his father or brother would drive their lugger boat 3 ½ hours from Empire, a small fishing community in Plaquemines Parish, to the Louisiana state fishing grounds. They’d use dredges to catch oysters growing on the water bottoms and hydraulic winches to lift them into the boat. “But all of the physical sorting of the oysters, and stacking them into burlap oyster sacks, and then stacking them onto the deck of the boat, that was all muscle—elbow grease,” Popich says. And it was all muscle all day, until they got a substantial catch—or whatever catch they could get. Some days, it would be 7 p.m. before they got back to their dock, unloaded the oysters and cleaned the boat, with another 3 a.m. start waiting the next morning, as long as there was a market.
“Then you’re braving the weather element as well,” he adds. “Some days, the sea can be slick calm and other days you’re rocking and rolling, swaying, but still trying to get in a day’s work, because you were not guaranteed to work the next day.”
Popich kept working on the boats on weekends, holidays and summers from the age of 16 all the way through college and his second year of law school. The family business, Popich Bros. Fisheries, has its roots in the early 1970s, when Popich’s father emigrated from what is now Croatia to do seasonal oyster farming work. “He ultimately obtained oyster leases, purchased his own oyster boats and did that his entire life that I’ve known,” Popich says.
When his father suffered a stroke, Popich took a year and a half between undergrad and law school to help with the work and assist his brother, Nedo, as he took over as head of the operation. Now, the business spans three oyster vessels and about 400 acres of leased water bottoms. And, while Popich has less of a hand in the labor, he’s still regularly involved with the business. He can be found helping his brother check oyster growth, and marking and checking the lease areas, as well as handling transactions, sales, offering business operating advice and, naturally, addressing legal or regulatory issues the business needs to navigate.
Popich credits the family business with driving his interest in law. “I’ve always wanted to do something associated with the water, with vessels, with marine commerce,” he says. Now a personal injury defense attorney who often handles workers’ comp cases and longshore-related claims, he says lawyering and oyster farming share one key thing: “They’re both hard work where you have to put the hours in. Just like everybody on the oyster boat has to do their part to have a successful catch, myself and my staff and my firm—everybody needs to work together to be a successful firm and provide a great product for our clients.”
In the courtroom or on the water, a good result delivers satisfaction. “When I can tell a client, ‘Look, your case is over, we settled,’ or ‘We successfully defended it and closed the case,’ that’s a great feeling.” And with the oysters? “I want to help my brother develop the crop, grow his crop, harvest it at the opportune time, and then try to get him the best value for his crop. And when he sells those oysters, then we know we succeeded in the whole process.”
An avid fisherman himself, Popich says it’s family that keeps him coming back to the oyster boats. “I feel it’s in my blood,” he says. “My entire family, from my father to his brothers to the uncles on my mother’s side of the family, they all emigrated from Croatia to Louisiana to work in the oyster industry. And they sacrificed so much for their family that it keeps calling me back. I can’t explain it. … I just love being on the water.”
Not Your Average Farm Field
In Louisiana, oyster harvesters stake their claim on oyster beds by leasing acres of water bottoms from the state. These leases are then marked by long poles, “so you know that’s your area to harvest from and to tell others, ‘This is my area, you can’t come into it,’” Popich explains. “So, essentially, you survey and then you mark it with the poles. It’s like a fence line, but it’s in the water.”
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