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Asian Gulf Coast Fisherman Face Uncertain Future

 Pacific Citizen, News Report

BATON ROUGE, LA - Advocates for the Vietnamese American fishermen say they face an uncertain future, days after officials from Louisiana fisheries reopened portions of the Gulf waters.

Officials with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries reopened July 29 sections of state waters — east of the Mississippi River and north of Pass a Loutre — to commercial fishing of finfish and shrimp. 

The announcement came after testing conducted by officials with the Food and Drug Administration. Those tests show, officials say, that fish is safe for consumption. BP CEO Doug Settles, further strengthening the FDA’s findings, told reporters on Aug. 1 that he would serve the fish to his family. 

Fishing of crabs and oysters is banned. 

Despite the good news, Gulf fishermen continue to seek aid from community organizations. Louisiana community advocates say the fishermen are not looking for handouts, but they are hoping to resume work.

“Since the beginning when this whole thing happened in April, all they’ve wanted to do is work,” said Tuan Nguyen, deputy director of the Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corp.

The number of fishing families seeking aid has slowed recently, said Nguyen. But he says they were seeing about 40 people a day. The overflow of fishing families that they cannot aid, are helped by the Catholic Charities in New Orleans.

“As of now the entire year of fishing is basically gone for all of these fishermen. They will have no income for fishing,” said filmmaker Leo Chiang. “A lot of folks they just want to work they don’t want to come and get handouts.”

An estimated one-third of those licensed fishermen working in the Gulf region are Vietnamese American.

After the fall of Saigon in 1975 Vietnamese refugees fled their country to resettle in the Big Easy. Before Hurricane Katrina an estimated 25,000 Vietnamese Americans lived in Louisiana. 

Katrina uprooted the community that previously lived an autonomous existence from other areas in New Orleans. 

“With Katrina it was more of an inconvenience,” Nguyen said. “With the oil spill people are left with an uncertainty of not knowing how to provide for their families.”

The Vietnamese American community was challenged again when Mayor Ray Nagin opened the Chef Menteur landfill in April 2006. The 100-acre site — which included toxic waste — was less than two miles from Versailles, a Vietnamese American enclave.

Chiang documented the community’s struggles in his film “A Village Called Versailles.” He has returned to New Orleans on several occasions for another film he is making about Congressman Anh “Joseph” Cao. 

“I don’t think the communities are sitting around feeling sorry for themselves,” Chiang said. “It’s another serious challenge, and they have to get through it. It does seem like they can’t get a break.”
Some fishermen are working with the BP program Vessels of Opportunity to help with in the clean-up efforts.

But Asian Pacific American community leaders say other Vietnamese American fishermen are eagerly looking forward to resuming their work that was halted when the well ruptured more than three months ago.

“Many have gone the entire last three months without income nor the opportunity to participate in the clean-up,” said JACL National Director Floyd Mori, who has visited the region and impacted communities. “Information on the claims process and how to get in the queue for work has been sparse and confusing.”

Fishermen were running into difficulty in filing claims because they dealt on a cash-only basis in the past. Community organizations are helping the fishermen compile spreadsheets to estimate their finances. In addition to troubles with filing claims, many are now wary of legal aid.

Soon after the oil well ruptured, New Orleans community leaders say lawyers approached fishermen impacted by the oil spill to help them acquire a portion of the BP’s $20-billion aid fund. 
“We call them sharks,” Nguyen explained. “The truth of the matter is you still have fishermen who signed documents not knowing what they signed.” Nguyen added that some attorneys allegedly “wined and dined” fishermen, promising a piece of the BP aid fund.

Community organizations are planning on holding educational meetings to inform fishermen about their options.

“We’re trying to find out from them what they would like to do,” Nguyen said. “We need to start getting folks who are interested in different industries.” He said some displaced fishermen have expressed an interest in changing industries if necessary. Ideas to create “green” jobs, raise free-range chicken or work in food production have been proposed.

Using the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill as an example, Nguyen said there is a chance the Gulf Coast waters might not be safe for years. “It took 20 years just for the shrimp to return,” Nguyen said about the long-term damages caused by the Exxon spill. 

When Hurricane Katrina hit the community at least had a place to return to, Nguyen said.

“With the oil spill it’s a different animal,” he said. “We don’t know what’s going on.” 

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