Gulf Oil Spill Lands Vietnamese Immigrant Fishermen In Limbo

Satellite image of the oil spill clean up effort in the Gulf of Mexico - Credit: DigitalGlobe/Flickr

May 8th 2010 satellite image of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. (Credit: DigitalGlobe/Flickr)

The boats are docked, the processing plants closed, and no one knows when they will be up and running again.  That means Louisiana’s hardworking Vietnamese and Cambodian fishermen, deck hands, oyster shuckers, ice house workers, and seafood packers are flat out of work after BP’s catastrophic oil spill.

“It’s had a profound impact on the Vietnamese who are primarily rooted to the sea, it’s the skill set they brought from Vietnam that allows them to earn a living and connects them to American society,” said attorney Joel Waltzer, who is representing individual and group claims for the Vietnamese community against BP.

Little known outside of the Gulf Coast, a huge, vibrant South East Asian community grew in Louisiana after the end of the Vietnam War. Waltzer says over half of the fishermen affected by the spill are Vietnamese, and they supply almost a third of the wild seafood harvested in the U.S.

In 1975, the archdiocese of New Orleans welcomed Vietnamese refugees to New Orleans. Most settled in a neighborhood called New Orleans East, but as the population grew, others formed small communities on the coast. Huge numbers went straight to work in the fishing industry, simply because that was what they did back in Vietnam. They had the necessary skills, and knowledge of English wasn’t integral to the jobs.

The giant oil spill has halted the economic lifeline for thousands of people working in the fishing industry on the Gulf Coast. But due to language barriers, many of the Vietnamese in their 40s and 50s are particularly disadvantaged. They are having trouble understanding what services and information BP is offering.

“We need competent translators that can relay messages to the fishing industries—for the Vietnamese, Cambodians and Hispanics,” said Diem Nguyen, of the Mary Queen of Viet Nam Community Development Corporation, a service organization formed after Hurricane Katrina.

“It’s a huge setback for people here—they sign waivers without knowing what they’re for,” Nguyen said.

The primary concern for the fishermen is financial—they’ve lost their jobs right smack in the middle of the height of the Louisiana fishing season. “This is when everybody makes their money. You have a window and the window is small,” said Waltzer.

BP has offered to hire fishermen to work on the clean up. But in order to do that, the fishermen need training in a language they speak fluently, and Nguyen said the interpreter provided by BP at the only session conducted in Vietnamese was so mediocre she was booed off of the stage. Without competent interpreting and training, the fishermen can’t get the work.

Regardless, there aren’t enough jobs to go around. Jon Pack, a spokesman for BP, said the company has received 46,000 calls from people who want to help.

At a community meeting last Friday attended by hundreds of fishermen, Hugh Depland, formerly the head of public relations for BP’s Gulf of Mexico affairs division, said over 900 fishermen have made themselves and their boats available, but fewer than 100 of them had been hired. As the New Orleans Lens reports,

“We have more people wanting to work than we can accommodate,” he told the fishers, many of whom were wearing small translating devices. “There is no guarantee you will be employed in that regard because we have a lot more people volunteering for work than we have jobs.”

For now, BP is providing fishermen with temporary assistance, ranging from $1,500 to $3,000. But it’s only for those who work on boats. “To pay the fisherman and not to pay the oyster shucker is wrong. They’re both sitting at home,” said Waltzer.

Pack said anyone affected can call the BP hotline and put in a claim for compensation.

Diem Nguyen helped the New Orleans Vietnamese fight a toxic landfill slated for their neighborhood after Hurricane Katrina, and she’s already thinking about long term solutions for those who have lost their occupation. Her idea is to get away from oil.

“We’re trying to transition the fishermen into other opportunities, such as green-jobs building, like installing solar panels,” she said.

AboutSarah Kate Kramer
Sarah Kate Kramer first got hooked on collecting stories as a StoryCorps facilitator, then traveled the world with a microphone for a few years before settling down in her hometown of New York City. From 2010-2012 she was the editor of Feet in 2 Worlds and a freelance reporter for WNYC Radio, where she created “Niche Market,” a weekly segment that profiled specialty stores in New York. Sarah is now a producer at Radio Diaries, a non-profit that produces documentaries for NPR and other public radio outlets.