New Orleans

Is This the End of the Line for Louisiana’s Vietnamese Shrimpers?

Oct. 30, 2014, 7:16 a.m.

VENICE, La.—On a two-net trawl­er at the mouth of the Mis­sis­sippi River, a Vi­et­namese shrimp­ing crew burns fake money and in­cense. The cap­tain, Phuoc Nguy­en, throws rain­bow-colored can­dies in­to the brack­ish bay­ou wa­ter.

“When you make a prom­ise to your an­cest­ors, you have to give back,” says his wife, Sandy Nguy­en, who comes from a long line of shrimpers in Vi­et­nam.

She and her hus­band blessed their 65-foot shrimp­ing trawl­er in Buddhist tra­di­tion on a re­cent Sunday to thank their an­cest­ors for their gen­er­os­ity this year. Louisi­ana’s white shrimp sea­son began two months ago, and the Nguy­en fam­ily has reas­on to cel­eb­rate: The Lady Hana and her three-man crew hauled in $40,000 worth of shrimp dur­ing their latest weeklong trip in­to the Gulf of Mex­ico. They can’t re­mem­ber the last time that happened.

The un­ex­pec­ted bounty is wel­come news for Louisi­ana’s Vi­et­namese shrimp­ing com­munity, which was crippled, along with the rest of the state’s com­mer­cial fish­ing in­dustry, after a double blow from Hur­ricane Kat­rina and the Gulf oil dis­aster. Kat­rina wiped out nearly every com­mer­cial fish­ing boat in the bay­ou. Then five years later, the BP oil rig Deep Wa­ter Ho­ri­zon ex­ploded 55 miles off­shore, pois­on­ing the shrimp, crabs, and oysters that spawn in the Mis­sis­sippi Delta.

“I saw fish­er­men with tears in their eyes; they were punch­ing walls,” says Nguy­en. “It led to do­mest­ic vi­ol­ence, stress, di­vorce.”

Vi­et­namese refugees make up about one-quarter of the state’s com­mer­cial shrimpers, ac­cord­ing to the Louisi­ana Shrimp­ing As­so­ci­ation. They first began set­tling in the New Or­leans area after the fall of Sai­gon in 1975. Cath­ol­ic char­it­ies in Louisi­ana made a huge ef­fort to settle the new­comers, many of whom be­longed to a minor­ity group of Cath­ol­ic fol­low­ers in Vi­et­nam. Most refugees, like Sandy Nguy­en’s fath­er, worked as com­mer­cial fish­er­men in Vi­et­nam and felt at home in the Louisi­ana swamps. They could keep their way of life without need­ing to ad­apt or learn much Eng­lish.

The Vi­et­namese com­munity grew slowly in the fol­low­ing dec­ades, as refugees pe­ti­tioned to bring their re­l­at­ives to New Or­leans. From 7,700 loc­al Vi­et­namese in 1980, the com­munity numbered more than 17,000 in 2013, mak­ing it the largest Asi­an demo­graph­ic in the metro area.

The Vi­et­namese shrimpers share a tight bond and of­ten view out­siders with sus­pi­cion. They were ini­tially re­luct­ant to speak with us dur­ing our re­cent vis­it to New Or­leans. But after a phone con­ver­sa­tion and in-per­son meet­ing, Sandy Nguy­en gra­ciously in­vited us to join a group of about a dozen shrimpers at the boat bless­ing. It wasn’t un­til after we feasted with them on roast pig, pickled chick­en, and es­pe­cially steamed turtle—a “del­ic­acy”—that they began to open up. 

Its in­su­lar­ity has caused prob­lems for the com­munity at times. For dec­ades, the Vi­et­namese shrimpers lived mostly in a cash-based sys­tem in the work­ing-class neigh­bor­hoods known as New Or­leans East. That setup be­came a prob­lem after Kat­rina, when many fish­er­men couldn’t get fed­er­al dis­aster as­sist­ance be­cause they hadn’t re­gistered their busi­nesses with the IRS. It also com­plic­ated ef­forts to prove their in­comes years later when fil­ing claims against BP for dam­aging their live­li­hood.

Sandy Nguy­en, 41, has spent most of her ca­reer try­ing to break down the old at­ti­tudes and en­cour­age fish­er­men to grow their busi­nesses. A gradu­ate of Tu­lane Uni­versity Busi­ness School, Nguy­en star­ted a non­profit in 2010, the same year as the oil spill. Coastal Com­munit­ies Con­sult­ing provides busi­ness ad­vice and tech­nic­al skills to thou­sands of fish­er­man. In the off-sea­son, her of­fice is busy run­ning cit­izen­ship, lit­er­acy, and com­puter classes. 

“It was a very un­der­served com­munity,” says Nguy­en, who ar­rived in New Or­leans from South Vi­et­nam with her par­ents and two sib­lings when she was 6 years old.

In her of­fice, she points to eight fil­ing cab­in­ets labeled “DWH.” Deep Wa­ter Ho­ri­zon. She’s helped 120 fam­il­ies get a total of $25 mil­lion from BP.

“Look, here’s Mark Clark,” she says, pulling out a file from one of the cab­in­ets. “If I hadn’t met him at a bar, he would have missed out on $400,000. He didn’t know about the claims. He’s il­lit­er­ate.”

Nguy­en works with more than 1,400 people in the fish­ing in­dustry. Two of them are sea­food deal­ers who own the mar­ina where the Nguy­ens dock their shrimp­ing boat.

Duong Tran and his wife, Chan, al­most gave up on the sea­food busi­ness they star­ted in the early 1980s after Kat­rina hit. D & C Sea­food buys fish and shrimp from fish­er­man by the truck­load, then re­sells them to a sea­food fact­ory in La­fay­ette. There the fish and shrimp are peeled, frozen, and shipped to gro­cery stores and res­taur­ants as far away as New York. Kat­rina flat­ted their dock and des­troyed their sea­food cool­er and trucks. It cost them $1 mil­lion in dam­ages, but their in­sur­ance didn’t cov­er it all.

“We were so tired,” says Duong, 51. “I told my wife, ‘Maybe we can find an­oth­er job. It’s too hard to build it back.’ “

They briefly thought about open­ing a gas sta­tion in New Or­leans with the in­sur­ance money they did re­ceive. They ul­ti­mately de­cided that would be too dan­ger­ous, and de­cided to stick with what they know. Nguy­en helped them get a small-busi­ness loan, and nine months later, con­struc­tion was com­plete.

But noth­ing could have pre­pared the Trans or Nguy­ens for the dev­ast­a­tion from the oil spill, which poisoned their gulf wa­ters and closed them off from com­mer­cial fish­er­men for nearly a year. The shrimp catch is about half what it once was, they say.

Neither fam­ily knows who will carry on the fam­ily busi­ness. Both couples sent their chil­dren to col­lege so they wouldn’t have to work so hard and risk so much. Maybe Vi­et­namese shrimp­ing cul­ture in Louisi­ana will end with their gen­er­a­tion, Chan Tran says. Her hus­band agrees.

“That’s the fu­ture,” Duong Tran says. “Sandy’s son—or even if I had a son—they just don’t want to shrimp no more.”

Na­tion­al Journ­al re­cently vis­ited New Or­leans to see how the city has changed in the nine years since Hur­ricane Kat­rina dis­placed thou­sands of Afric­an-Amer­ic­an fam­il­ies and drew thou­sands of Latino im­mig­rants to re­build the city. In the com­ing weeks, Next Amer­ica will pub­lish a series of stor­ies about the people who are re­de­fin­ing the fu­ture of this icon­ic city.

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