Vietnamese Among Hardest Hit By BP Spill
Immigrant Community Relies Exclusively on Fishing
On Monday afternoon, things were pretty quiet at the commercial fishing dock in Port Sulphur, Louisiana. The boat slips were full (a bad sign), but the place was nearly empty of people. A group of five BP-contracted cleanup workers lazed in the shade waiting for orders from higher-ups (“it’s really boring,” one told me). A couple of US Fish and Wildlife Service employees loaded up a boat with cages for capturing oil-soaked birds. The only people who looked like they had a deadline to meet were the Nguyen and Vu families, who were using the closure of fishing waters as a chance to make some repairs on their boats. Despite punishing afternoon temperatures and humidity (the heat index was above 100 degrees that day), the Vietnamese shrimpers were working hard. The families had removed the trawling riggings from their boats and had the large, L-shaped aluminum frames splayed out on the oyster-shell parking lot to cut and re-weld. Better to stay busy than just sit around.
It’s that kind of relentless work ethic that has made Vietnamese shrimpers a dominant force in southern Louisiana fishing waters. As The New York Times reports, today Vietnamese make up about a third of the state’s shrimpers. Ten years ago, according to the Cajun fishermen who for generations have been the backbone the Louisiana industry, there were hardly any Vietnamese in the region.
Most of the media coverage of the oil blowout’s impact on fishermen has featured people with surnames like LeBlanc. But fishermen with the name Tran might provide a more accurate picture of the spill’s victims. Vietnamese shrimpers are likely to take the hardest hit from BP’s disaster. That’s because the Vietnamese, in contrast to their Cajun neighbors, rely exclusively on fishing to a make a living. Many native Louisianans who fish also work off-season work in the petro-chemical industry or take odd-jobs in construction. Shrimping is all the Vietnamese have.
“We have only one kind of job,” said Tuan Nguyen as he and his brother and his uncle worked on their rigging. “We don’t know how to find a job. That’s it. We cannot go out no more. We are closed. Stay home. I’m no money so I’m sad ‘cause no money.”
According to Nichole Benoit, a commercial fisherwoman and the dock clerk at Port Sulphur, the Vietnamese account for a little more than half of the local shrimpers, but they bring in about two-thirds of the catch. They simply work harder, and longer, than the native Louisianans.
“The Vietnamese will work what’s called ‘clock’ — that’s 24-hours,” Benoit told me. “They don’t stop. They’ll stay out there three or four days, whereas the American shrimpers come in every night. It’s almost as if they have something to prove, they work so hard. We have one couple in their seventies. They go out there, just husband and wife, and they’ll stay out there for several days and come in with 50-60 boxes. We’ve had them come in with 75-80 boxes. That’s a lot of shrimp. Seventy-five boxes is 7,500 pounds of shrimp.”
Despite the cultural difference and language barriers, the Vietnamese have won a place for themselves in the tight-knit fishing communities of the Louisiana bayou. The native fishermen say they have a lot of admiration for the Vietnamese’s hard work, commitment to family, and loyalty to each other. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for them” Pete Vujnovich, an out-of-work oystermen who keep his two boats at the Port Sulphur dock, told me. Many of the oyster farmers who work the estuaries around the Mississippi River are Croatians whose families came to the region about 100 years ago, and Vujnovich said he sees reflections of his own history in the Vietnamese experience. “They are like my people were with the oysters. They are doin’ hard work that one else wants to do.”
“I wish I could speak their language,” Benoit said of the Vietnamese. “They are just hard- working, simple people. They are very loyal. They bring us food: egg rolls and this kind of tortilla with bananas in it.” A minute later she said: “If, God forbid, they told us we couldn’t fish in this area for the next ten years, they [the Vietnamese] would be lost.”
In a week of interviewing people across southern Louisiana, the most common expressions of frustration and anger that I heard had to do with feelings of powerlessness and uncertainty. While frightening, a hurricane is, in its own fashion, a predictable force of nature. Gulf residents know how to cleanup and repair, and they take their lumps with a certain sangfroid. The BP blowout hurts so much worse because Gulf residents feel their fates are in the hands of others: BP claims adjustors, federal officials, cleanup workers. A fear of not knowing when and how the disaster will end compounds the feeling of disempowerment. “It’s the uncertainty that gets to you,” Benoit said. “That’s the scary part. The difference between this and Katrina — Katrina came and left. This is just lingerin’ and goin’ on and on.”
Out under the sun, the Vietnamese felt the same way. “It’s hard, we don’t know what happened,” Nguyen told me. “We don’t have no money for this year. Maybe next year, too. We don’t know.”