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.