Slipping Away: Livelihood and Way-of-Life Fade for Immigrant Fishermen in the Gulf

Hispanic Fishermen in St. Bernard Paris - Photo: Annie Correal

Hispanic Fishermen in St. Bernard Parish. (Photo: Annie Correal)

Reporter’s Notebook

Listen to the radio story Annie Correal produced about Central American fishermen in St. Bernard Parish for Latino USA this week:

NEW ORLEANS —In recent years, men from all over Central America have settled in St. Bernard Parish, a cluster of little towns on the bayou an hour’s drive from New Orleans. They came here to work, learning from other immigrant fishermen how to catch oysters, shrimp and crabs. Until the BP oil spill destroyed the industry this year, the work was good; a fishermen could earn up to $600 a day. Before the spill, these men also had a good relationship with the wider community of the parish—the store-keeper at the only store on the bayou began stocking tortillas and jalapenos and learning a few words in Spanish to better serve the community of around 300 Hispanic immigrants.

But since the oil spill and its economic aftermath—the moratorium on fishing along the Gulf Coast—life has changed drastically for these men. Some sit on their boats all day waiting to be called for cleanup work, while others have had to pick up and leave in search of work. The few who have been hired on locals’ boats to lay barriers along the marshy coast say they fear Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will meet them at the port. Saul, an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador who asked me not to use his full name, said, “I’ll jump off the boat and go into the trees if I see them coming.”

Hispanic Fishermen in St. Bernard Paris - Photo: Annie Correal

Hispanic Fishermen in St. Bernard Parish. (Photo: Annie Correal)

One reason these Central American fishermen are suffering even more than their local, American counterparts, is that the parish is defensively guarding cleanup jobs for locals. The parish sheriff recently admitted he requested that ICE visit cleanup sites to make sure the response workers had legal papers. He also said that his office was planning to set up checkpoints to prevent new immigrants from coming into the parish, as they did after Hurricane Katrina. As part of this effort, the parish, which until recently was managing offshore operations for BP in this area, has favored local fishermen for clean-up jobs. “The parish doesn’t have any Spanish boats working. Not even one,” the parish spokeswoman, Jennifer Belsom, told me.

Hispanic Fishermen in St. Bernard Paris - Photo: Annie Correal

Boat being used for cleanup in St. Bernard Parish. (Photo: Annie Correal)

As I reported this story, I discovered that there actually are a few boats operated by Hispanic immigrants, but the spokeswoman’s words reflect the local government’s attitude toward Latino fishermen. Among many of the local fishermen themselves, however, I found a different slant. Here, and all along the Gulf Coast, the commercial fishing industry has always been replenished by immigrants — from Spain, France, Croatia, Vietnam, as well as Central America — and there is some solidarity among them. Mike Diaz, a third-generation Louisiana fisherman with Spanish roots, told me it may be harder for the most recent arrivals, but he says that with BP at the helm, they’re all in the same boat.

St. Bernard Paris - Photo: Annie Correal

St. Bernard Parish. (Photo: Annie Correal)

“They want you to dot your i’s and cross your t’s,” said Diaz of the oil company, which is providing the clean-up jobs. “It ain’t no more about commercial fishermen, it’s about becoming an oil company man,” he said. “The fishing’s over and you know, listening to the man is now the priority. You know, we’ve got to jump through hoops, that’s what we’ve got to do. So, jump through hoops for a living now, instead of being free like we usually are.”

Annie Correal is a reporter with El Diario/La Prensa.

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