Vietnamese shrimpers face financial ruin after oil spill

By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 27, 2010; A01

NEW ORLEANS -- They came here seeking refuge, but the past few years have brought unexpected hardship to the tightly knit Vietnamese fishing community.

They arrived after the fall of Saigon in 1975, lured by the city's tropical climate and strong Catholic heritage. Shrimping and fishing in the Gulf Coast's bountiful bayous was one of the few familiar touchstones for these mostly unskilled laborers with little English.

An estimated 20,000 Vietnamese fishermen and shrimpers live along the Gulf Coast -- about half of the total fishing community -- and many more work at the seafood processing plants, wholesalers and po-boy shops found at every traffic light. Now the sanctuary they found and the lives they built -- and rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina -- are threatened by the hemorrhaging oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Many Vietnamese worry they will not have the energy to start over yet again.

"When I came to Louisiana, this was how people here made a living. I had to follow," 50-year-old shrimper Dung Nguyen says in Vietnamese. "I don't know how I'm going to live."

Nguyen says he has no idea whether life is harder for him than for American shrimpers; he doesn't know any to ask. All he knows is that his wife, their five daughters, his mother-in-law and his granddaughter -- all of whom live with him in a modest rented home in the industrial eastern edge of New Orleans -- are counting on him for survival.

That's why he got up before dawn last week to stand in line for a food voucher with dozens of other out-of-work Vietnamese fishermen and shrimpers in the concrete alley in front of Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church's community office. The wait can last five, six, even seven hours.

Oversleepers are turned away before they even make it inside.

"If you're a little bit late . . . ," Nguyen warns in Vietnamese, shaking his head.

He knows because he showed up after 5 a.m. for two days and missed out on a $100 grocery store gift certificate, 20 of which are handed out every morning. It is 8:30 a.m. and the office has yet to open, but he is hoping the third time is the charm. Besides, he says, he has nothing to do all day but sit around and think -- about having no work, no money and no options.

Normally Nguyen is on a boat this time of year, coming ashore for a home visit about once a month. His wife, Ut, makes shrimp nets, and his oldest daughter, Lisa, 20, fixes trawls and cleans boats. Now they are all unemployed.

"Get in a straight line, please," a woman calls out in English to the group, mostly men, milling about the alley as staffers open the office door.

The Vietnamese quickly flatten themselves along the wall as aid workers hand out numbered tickets for vouchers to the first in line. Dung secures one, as does his wife, even though the vouchers are technically limited to one per family. Because so many Vietnamese share the same last name and the community is so intertwined, the rule is tough to enforce.

"Three days. One hundred," Nguyen says in his broken English.

Another friend overhears him and laughs. It's not in your hand, yet, he cautions.

Strong bonds strained

Nguyen came to this country late, in 1992, and drifted through blue-collar jobs in Arizona and California before he fell into shrimping in Louisiana.

The couple have lived in New Orleans the longest of any place in the United States. The cost of living is cheap, and work seemed plentiful. They rented their first house here and made friends quickly. Nguyen says he recognizes everyone waiting with him in the food voucher line.

More than two months after the oil spill all but shut down the local seafood industry, the bonds that tie the community together are fraying as they face financial ruin.

A fight broke out on a recent morning after aid workers ran out of food vouchers. Now a security officer guards the alley, sweltering in his brown uniform in the soupy heat. A meeting between BP and Vietnamese fishermen dissolved after translators used northern Vietnamese phrases that many here associate with communism.

New interpreters have been installed.

"People are really frustrated," says Tap Bui, a community organizer at the church. "They feel like their sense of life is gone . . . A lot of them feel like they'll never be able to get that back."

Although the Vietnamese community is centered in eastern New Orleans, it stretches from the marshes of Plaquemines Parish through Biloxi, Miss., and Gulf Shores, Ala., and throughout the seafood industry's supply chain. Vinh Tran, 60, began working as a deckhand on shrimp boats when he immigrated 35 years ago and eventually bought his own boats and opened a shrimp dock and wholesale market named St. Vincent's in the one-road bayou town of Leeville, La.

Now his daughter-in-law, Ngoc Nguyen, 27, runs the business and worries that even with aid they will not last through the year. In two months last summer, St. Vincent's took in 2 million pounds of shrimp. This year, they've done less than a third of that. The bait shop next door has already closed.

"This should've been our best season yet," she says.

Ngoc Nguyen, who is not related to Dung, was studying to be a nurse when Katrina hit in 2005 and changed the course of her life. Her now-husband's family needed help with St. Vincent's, so she stepped in. She says they owe $700,000 in loans for the shop and their three boats. Although she and her husband have received some money from BP, Nguyen says it's not enough to cover their expenses, let alone the interest on their loans. The story is the same throughout the Vietnamese community.

"We didn't invest in anything but the seafood business," Ngoc Nguyen says.

To Texas for work

It rains three times before Dung Nguyen's name is called at Mary Queen of Vietnam. He walks into a small room and sits down in front of a large wooden desk while the aid worker reviews his file. He utters no words other than his name and birthdate. The aid worker asks few questions.

After six hours of waiting, Nguyen receives a $100 gift certificate to a local Vietnamese grocery store, Mien Canh. A few minutes later, his wife comes out of a similar meeting with another gift certificate, a canister of rice and two cans of Starkist tuna.

They climb into their minivan and head home, where they get more good news: A shrimp boat captain is looking for deckhands to run out to Texas the next morning. Nguyen has never shrimped that far before, but he says he'll take it.

He makes plans with his neighbor, Trung Le, for the two-hour drive down to the dock to get on the boat. Le will spend the night at Nguyen's house, and by 6 p.m. he's there with his duffel bag, ready to commandeer the couch. They buy spicy boiled crawfish and crack open some Bud Lights. The local news is playing on the TV, and the forecast is gloomy. What if it rains? What if there is a big storm?

"Everything, I don't care," Le says in English. "Go."

But the celebration is cut short when Nguyen gets another call.

The shrimp boat is having mechanical trouble. It will take a day, maybe longer, to fix it. The trip is canceled.

Nguyen hangs up the phone and takes stock of his options. He heard that BP is holding a deckhand training class 20 minutes away in Slidell tomorrow morning, but he's not sure of the address or whether he needs special paperwork to attend. Maybe he can just show up? Or maybe the shrimp boat will get fixed before the morning.

Nguyen doesn't know that he can look up the address of the BP class online. He'd have trouble reading it if he did, not to mention that it will be taught by a white-haired man with a heavy Southern accent who will be talking about subjects like "oil weathering" and "the displacement of vapors heavier than oxygen." He doesn't know yet that the shrimping job will never materialize, and he will be back at square one.

But Nguyen says uncertainty is the nature of his trade. He cannot control when the work comes, how long it will last or even if it will turn up. That's up to the boat captain, to Mother Nature or even BP.

So Nguyen sits on a stool at his coffee table, sips a Bud Light and waits for something to happen.

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