Gulf Coast Vietnamese Fishermen Experience Biloxi Blues

The STORM SURGE Team recently spent several weeks in the Gulf Coast region interviewing individuals whose lives have been negatively affected by natural and man-made disasters – from hurricanes like Katrina, Ike and Rita, to the BP Oil Spill and the massive tornado storms earlier this past spring.

In early September, we had the opportunity to spend a few hours with three members of the Gulf Coast Vietnamese Fishing Community in Biloxi, MS who have been struggling to rebuild their livelihoods in the aftermath of Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.

Pictured left to right are Luat Nguyen and Leebien Do, Hoang Tran, Thanh Nguyen, and Huy Tran.

The trio’s ability to speak English was rather limited, however, two members of our Team, Thanh Nguyen, a senior at Seattle University, and Huy Tran (pronounced “Who-Wee”), a recent graduate of St. Martins University near Tacoma, were able to serve as translators.

Thanh Nguyen interviewing two Vietnamese fishermen in Biloxi, MS.

Thanh and Huy were masterful when it came to translating and asking questions to get these two men, both extremely shy and wary of strangers, to open up and share intimate details about their lives – to include how they escaped the tyranny of the communist Vietcong after the fall of Saigon during the Vietnam War – and how they made their way to the United States.

Hoang and Leebien are proud, hard-working and humble men who have respectively spent over 30 years of their lives harvesting shrimp from the swamps and bayous of the Gulf, much of which is shipped and consumed here in the Pacific Northwest.

Shrimping is categorically all these men know.  It’s who they are AND it’s what they do!

A solitary shrimp fishing boat trawling the waters near Biloxi, MS.

Before the spill, Leebien would harvest an average of one million pounds of shrimp per month during the season, which typically lasts from May to December.  Now, he averages NOTHING!  ZERO!  ZILCH!

After the spill, BP temporarily hired Hoang, Leebien and many other Vietnamese shrimp and fisherman to scoop crude from the fouled waters and deploy boom as a line of defense to save one of the nation’s richest fishing grounds.  This was more of a calculated public relations stunt to give the appearance of, “making things right,” than an actual attempt to restore the livelihoods of Gulf Coast fishermen.

Additionally, BP failed to supply them with, and prevented them from using the necessary safety equipment to protect them from the toxic oil, methane gas, and the chemical dispersant corexit that was used to break up the oil before it arose to the surface.  Many have fallen ill with what’s being called Gulf Oil Syndrome and face the long-term threat of lung, liver, and bladder cancer.

Leebien shows Huy his shrimp licenses.

To make matters worse, after spending money they couldn’t afford for fuel and retrofitting their boats, BP failed to pay invoices in a timely manner or fully reimburse these individuals for their expenses.  People are losing their boats, homes and being forced to stand in long lines for up to 6-hours to receive $100 food vouchers meant to sustain themselves for 3-days.

Now, as their boats sit idle and rust in local marinas, many have been forced borrow money from friends and family (who themselves are experiencing hardships) or take out loans to pay moorage slip fees.

This is what happens to a fishing boat when it sits idle.

Adding insult to injury to Hoang, Leebien and the tightly knit Vietnamese fishing community (some 20K strong) is the fact they are being marginalized by government bureaucracy and duped by unscrupulous attorneys looking to exploit them for profit.  It’s hard to believe that stuff like this is actually happening in the U.S., but it’s TRUE!

Members of the Vietnamese fishing community attending the Gulf Coast Restoration Committee Task Force Meeting

When our interview ended, Leebien’s wife (seen below) gave us all a huge hug.  In broken English she expressed how appreciative she was for the fact a group of people from Seattle cared so much about their situation that we would drive all the way to Mississippi just to hear their stories.

Luat Nguyen on her boat discussing the effects of the BP Oil Spill.

It was a powerful moment, one that we will never forget.  

Since our return, we’ve been exploring ways in which we can help this community, both short- and long-term.

One idea that we are now investigating is establishing a fund where monies would be used to cover the moorage slip fees to help Hoang, Leebien and other Vietnamese fishermen offset this expense, as they collectively figure out how to move forward. Even if they could catch seafood, the question is, “who’s going to buy it?”

Last week, we contacted the marina Manager and asked if we could pay for six months moorage.  He told us that he needed a couple of days to think about it.

The fishing docks, where we met and interviewed Vietnamese fishermen after the meeting.

A few days ago, the Manager called us back with an awesome offer suggesting:

“If y’all can come up wit $2,400 hunerd dolla’s, well, I can let these guys stay tied up here for 6-months, AND I’ll throw in 6-months for free.”

He further stated, “I saw y’all hugging Leebien’s wife when ya’ were down here and was wondering what y’all were up too.  I talked to her the otha’ day and she told me that you were [good people] and that you drove all the way down here from Seattle to see how you can help the community get back on its feet.  I know it probably cost ya’ a couple thousand dollars in gas to drive here and back home.  

Don’t know many folks who’d do that.  So I’ll tell ya’ what, I’m just gonna charge ya’ for shore power ‘cause that’s what it costs me.  Tying the boats up is free.”

These guys have been down on their luck for a couple years and have no money.  My business is down, but this is the best I can do.”

Mr. Leebien’s shrimp fishing boat.

 

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Update: Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force

The Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, chaired by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, today released for public review and feedback its comprehensive preliminary strategy for long term ecosystem restoration.

The strategy, which will be presented to President Obama at the end of the public feedback period, represents an historic opportunity for addressing long-standing issues contributing to the decline of the Gulf’s critical ecosystem.

The preliminary strategy is the first effort of its kind to be developed with the involvement of parties throughout the region, including the states, tribes, federal agencies, local governments and thousands of interested citizens and organizations. The plan further represents the Task Force’s commitment to continue working in unprecedented collaboration to achieve critical improvements.

Additionally, the Task Force will begin immediately reviewing existing policies, programs and regulations that are slowing down restoration progress, particularly in the habitat restoration area. Innovative ways to accomplish delivery of restoration action will also be explored, and measures of success and science needs for restoration supported.

This Preliminary Strategy represents the Task Force’s deep commitment to working toward a positive future for the Gulf.  The strategy was developed following more than 40 public meetings throughout the Gulf to listen to the concerns of the public. It is available to the public for review and feedback at www.epa.gov/gulfcoasttaskforce, until 11:59 p.m. EST October 26, 2011.

The Task Force will release the final version in December 2011.

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Challenges & Opportunities.

Residents living in the Midwest and Gulf Coast have suffered more than their fair share of natural and man-made disasters in recent years.  Floods have soaked communities along the Mississippi, super tornadoes have plowed through Alabama, oil has lacquered the Louisiana coastline, and the lingering effects from Hurricane Katrina and the Great Recession have left a landscape of complex ecological and socio-economic problems.

Compounding these problems is the clear need for:

  • Long-term housing for tens of thousands of displaced people;
  • Affordable physical and mental healthcare treatment for the uninsured;
  • Alternative forms of energy to ween the region, indeed the nation, off fossil fuels; and
  • Education and workforce development programs for dislocated workers and young adults.
These challenges need a whole-systems strategic approach, billions of dollars, and a lot of people to help to resolve.

The STORM SURGE Project attempts to capture first hand what people are doing to rebuild their lives and their respective communities while living under the scourge of these catastrophes.