Mississippi Gulf Coast fishermen say that five years after the BP oil spill, life has not returned to normal. In the third part of a week-long series, MPB’s Evelina Burnett looks at how the disaster affected the coast’s Vietnamese fishing community.
Fishermen are getting their shrimp boats ready for the season at a fishing pier on the Back Bay of Biloxi. Many of the boats here are owned and crewed by Vietnamese American fishermen, who have become a central part of the Gulf Coast's seafood industry.
Daniel Le, branch manager of Boat People SOS in Biloxi, says many Vietnamese immigrants chose to settle on the gulf coast because of the water.
“Most of these folks who live here were fishermen in Vietnam, they lived by the coast," he says. "So by coming to Biloxi, this is the perfect climate, similar to what they are experiencing in Vietnam. And given that fishing doesn’t require you to learn English, they begin to go to work right away to support their family.”
Le says the vast majority of the Vietnamese American community on the Mississippi coast works in the seafood industry, as captains or deckhands on boats or in the area’s many seafood processing and packaging plants. That made the impact of the BP spill, which shut down fishing for months in 20-10, hit the community especially hard.
Dung Nguyen is one of the many fishermen affected by the spill. He started as a deck-hand on his uncle's boat and then bought his own in 1995.
The Captain Anothony catches shrimp in the summer and then goes out to look for oysters in the fall and winter. After the spill shut down fishing for months in 2010, Nguyen was back on the water the following year but he says the seasons were limited and some processors wouldn’t buy the catch.
“I was stuck with a pile of shrimp with nowhere to be distributed or to sell to," he says through a translator.
Nguyen says shrimping has improved since then, but is still not at pre-spill levels. The low catches and uncertainty have prompted some fishermen to leave the industry, but many, like Nguyen, don’t have that option.
“I just don’t have the opportunity to move to another profession. You need a lot of capital to start a new business, and this is the only thing that I know," he says.
"So I'll take out to show, these are some crabs, right here..." Thao Vu, director of the Mississippi Coalition of Vietnamese American Fisher Folks and Families, opens a container of crabs caught on a recent trip from Bayou Caddy in Hancock County, to display at an event marking the fifth anniversary of the oil spill.
"We spent five-and-a-half hours in Bay St. Louis, went through almost 175 crab traps, and we caught 53 pounds of crabs."
Vu says, pre-spill, they would have brought in 200 pounds, or more. She says these small catches have left the Vietnamese American fishing community struggling.
“They have serious economic hardships because of what has happened to the fisheries. There are greatly reduced catches, and those fisheries have not been restored to pre- oil disaster, and they're not very hopeful at this point, because five years later, things are not improving. In fact, they're getting worse. ”
Blue crabs, like oysters, were also affected by the influx of freshwater sent into the Mississippi Sound by the opening of the Bonnet Carre spillway in 2011, the year after the spill. Traci Floyd with the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources says there are many factors that affect seafood landings.
“Environmental conditions, salinity, which is affected by rainfall, temperatures, many things, and of course the effects of the oil spill are being studied long term through the Natural Resource Damage Assessment program," she says, adding that the results of the asessment won’t be available for some time, which makes it hard to say conclusively what the effects of the spill are.
Vu with the Mississippi Coalition of Vietnamese Fisher Folks and Families says one of the most important things now is that local fishermen become a part of the environemental restoration process.
"They possess a great deal of traditional ecological knowledge from decades of spending time in the water," Vu says. "They need to be front and center if you're talking about restoring this."
Shrimp boat captain Dung Nguyen says he wants to see more projects to help restore water quality.He also hopes local fishermen get the first crack at the jobs expected to be created by the hundreds of millions of dolalrs in restoration work that’s expected over the coming years.
"I don't know what is going to happen in the future," he says. "Hopefully everything will be back to normal again, but the answer is still far ahead of us, and whatever's happened, we just have to deal with it and hope for the best."
Tomorrow, we’ll examine the BP claims process and why Mississippi has among the lowest number of claims on the Gulf Coast.