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Asian American Gulf Coast Fishermen's Frustrations Teem Over Four Months After the Spill

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Asian American Gulf Coast Fishermen's Frustrations Teem Over Four Months After the Spill

Picture of Nalea J. Ko
Scientists say the deepwater plume at the BP well site has vanished, but Gulf Coast fishermen are still feeling the financial and emotional impacts from the oil spill.
Friday, September 3, 2010

Biloxi, Mississippi—The sun rose over the horizon a few hours before 62-year-old Sung Nguyen stood dockside with tears steadily flowing down his cheeks.

The new day brought the same stress of being out of work with few prospects. The Vietnamese American fisherman watched his nearby docked boat, wrapped partially in "Dream Girls" movie posters, as it rocked gently in a Biloxi, Mississippi harbor.

Wiping his tears with a sodden tissue, Nguyen pointed to the boat, explaining through a translator how he lost his house following the Gulf Coast oil spill and now calls the "Dreams Girls" decorated vessel his home.

His worries have heightened he says because his compensation from BP has decreased each month from $5,000 to $1,800. "And now for August he hasn't gotten anything," said translator Lan Nguyen, a program associate with OCA.

Without work opportunities Sung Nguyen and other nearby fishermen sit idly at the docks hoping for their luck to change.

"There's no shrimp to be caught and no one is coming to buy the shrimp," said Sung Nguyen through a translator about consumers' fears of potentially contaminated Gulf seafood.

Frustrated fishermen say work opportunities have dried up, just like the well that was capped in mid-July.

Information gathered in late August from scientists aboard NOAA's (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) research ship, the Pisces, one of some 10 vessels researching at the site, shows that the oil plume at the failed BP well site has vanished.

But other researchers dispute those findings.

Scientists with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution found that the "deep-sea microbes were degrading the plume relatively slowly." Those findings are based on about 57,000 chemical tests conducted from June 18 to 28.

Oil has disappeared from the water's surface near the failed well, but some out-of-work fishermen say their troubles are overflowing.

A few blocks down the street from Sung Nguyen in a harbor outside of the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, fishermen angrily voiced their concerns about not being called to work for BP's Vessels of Opportunities program.

Rumors among the fishermen are swirling that those who speak out against BP in the media or seek help from community organizations are blacklisted from work opportunities or aid.

With rumors circulating, some fishermen are hesitant to express their feelings of the company that is responsible for the Deep Water Horizon explosion on April 20 and Gulf Coast oil spill.

Out of work, Ta Hai Hong questions the process of placing workers with BP's Vessels of Opportunity program, but adds that the company is his only lifeline.

"People who bring back oil to say that there is still oil out there they get fired," Hong said through a translator about fishermen who have worked on the clean-up efforts for BP. "And the people who are cleaning but say there isn't oil, then they continue to work."

"The community and everyone just wants to work," added Ricky Nguyen, a Mississippi fisherman. "But no one is able to do work." He has been fishing the Gulf waters for about 28 years and there has never been a year like this, he said.

As a community, fishermen in the area send out one or two boats daily to see if there's anything to catch. They say there is nothing to be caught. Some blame dispersants that they say have sunk the oil down to the bottom of the Gulf.

Others say it does not matter if they did return with a hefty seafood catch because customers will not buy it.

"[I] caught about 500 pounds worth of shrimp," said Tua Van Ta, a boat owner. "I called the seafood company and they don't buy. They say no customers [will] buy it."

Officials with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries reopened Aug. 21 commercial crabbing in waters east of the Mississippi River and north of Pass a Loutre.

The emergency reopening came after crab samples underwent sensory and chemistry testing by the Food and Drug Administration.

About 4,281 square miles of the Gulf waters reopened Aug. 27, according to NOAA's Jane Lubchenco. Seafood samples at NOAA undergo the "sniff" test by sensory technicians to determine if there is an odor or taste from the oil or dispersant. Samples then undergo chemical analysis.

The contaminant of most concern is the potentially cancer causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. PAHs are usually released in to the environment by car exhaust, forest fires or volcanoes. They are also present in tobacco smoke.

NOAA scientists say fish like the grouper, snapper, croaker and tuna are less likely to have an accumulation of PAHs because of their efficient metabolism.

Reopening protocol of Gulf waters requires seafood samples pass testing at NOAA.

President Barack Obama, who recently visited Florida, has also been promoting the safety of Gulf Coast seafood. Still, some fishermen and their families are not convinced.

"My son don't eat no more seafood," Tua Van Ta said about his 11-year-old son Levi. "He doesn't want it because he's scared of poison."

"He said, ‘Mom I'm not eating them crabs.' And he is a crab eater," said Eva Ta about her son as he giggled at her side. "He can sit and eat about 30 or more by himself. Now he won't even touch them."

The three Ta children are not the only ones skeptical of eating Gulf seafood. Tua Van Ta says when he does catch shrimp, the only people who buy it are friends and community members.

"Doing shrimping is really dangerous," Tua Van Ta said at a town hall meeting. "But it's good money for fishermen. We don't want to work flipping hamburgers or work in a factory."

Community organizations like JACL, OCA, Boat People SOS and others were a part of a town hall meeting Aug. 17 in Biloxi, Miss. The meeting, one of a series of town hall discussions, was held to address the questions and concerns of fisher families that have been impacted by the oil spill.
Ideas to possibly create new jobs for displaced fishermen were also discussed.

"We hear this a lot, ‘We need jobs,'" said Floyd Mori, JACL national director, at an Aug. 17 community organization meeting in Mississippi. "We have got to look at what the structure of the economy here is. What is the future? When you take a fishermen, who that's all he knows. How can you retrain a 50-year-old guy that has limited English to do something new?"

Switching occupations is a scary prospect for some families who have relied on fishing.

"They won't hire you without a high school education," Eva Ta explained about seeking other jobs. "See I didn't graduate. Back then it wasn't a big issue. Now it is. Everything that I've known has been taken away."

The Mississippi town hall meeting was held days before the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Areas residents say they were still recovering from Katrina when the oil spill occurred.

"It's not just jobs lost," said Thao Vu, coordinator for the Mississippi Coalition for Vietnamese American Fisherfolk and Families, about how Katrina affected the job market. "Particularly for many ethnic minorities these resources like housing programs, we were the last to get it. … We've always been underserved, overlooked and marginalized."

Gulf coast residents say at least after the hurricane they could still fish.

"His friends who do the shrimping, they [used to] go out come back and catch 500 pounds a day and it will be gone in two hours," Lan Nguyen said, translating for Sung Nguyen. "Now they have 200 pounds and they won't be able to sell even that."

"He had a house before. Now he lives on his boat," she said. "All he wants is to work on his boat.