“They spilled on us like we weren’t there”: Louisiana’s ‘invisible’ fishing community

A Vietnamese fisherman’s wife gestures to a forefinger with her thumb, pointing to the second knuckle to indicate how small the brown shrimp are this season; “we’re not making enough for gas—we can barely pay our deckhands, let alone ourselves.”

Shrimping is a difficult business even when the shrimp are large and the yields abundant. 2016 was a particularly trying year for Southeast Louisiana’s commercial fisherfolk. Six years after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and ensuing BP Oil Catastrophe, Gulf fishermen have watched their income and way of life unravel as nets come up almost empty, shrimp prices plummet, gas prices rise, and seasons grow shorter. These hurdles, in addition to red listing, a market flooded with foreign, farmed-raised shrimp, coastal erosion, and falling dockside prices, consistently affect the region’s poorest shrimpers, whose small boats cannot travel far, forcing them to harvest less, much smaller shrimp than well-equipped boats can find in deeper federal waters.

Many of the fleet’s smaller boats are owned by Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American fishermen, whose experiences both on water and on land provide an extreme example of how disaster creates openings for state-sanctioned neglect, perpetuating long histories of struggle predicated on refugee displacement and difference.

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Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American fishermen represent over a quarter of Southeast Louisiana’s commercial shrimping fleet. Following their resettlement in New Orleans and the surrounding area after the Fall of Sai Gon in 1975, many Vietnamese refugees started working in the state’s commercial fishing industry, transitioning their knowledge of fishing in Viet Nam to the Louisiana coast.

Since the late 1970s, they have experienced barriers to access as non-native English speakers whose distrust of traditional bank and insurance infrastructures make their businesses vulnerable to audits and amplify the threat of disaster. In the early- and mid-1980s, Vietnamese fishermen faced harassment from white fishermen who felt the foreigners and refugees were taking jobs away from locals. KKK chapters across the Gulf of Mexico rallied against them as well, taking to boats in full regalia and brandishing firearms, taking up cries to “fight fight fight” and see “blood blood blood.”

This response emerged in an industry where every boat functions as its captain’s sovereign territory; the minute a shrimping season opens, each crew works to make the highest yields, find the best cache of shrimp, process their catch, and get back on the water as quickly as possible. For white fishermen, the influx of Vietnamese competition was seen as a direct threat to their ability to accumulate capital.

Today, there is significantly less animosity among Southeast Louisiana fishermen of all races. However, this recent history of violence remains alive in the memory of every Vietnamese captain and deckhand as they prepare to go out on the water. Stories are passed down through families like folklore, and most fishermen, regardless of their community affiliation, keep a gun in their boat’s cabin.

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While the 1980s saw a marked boom in Gulf shrimp production, this is no longer the case. As the state’s ecological and socio-economic future becomes increasingly unclear, a much more abstract foe has emerged for Southeast Louisiana’s commercial fishermen: Louisiana’s political reliance on foreign oil capital. Add to this the effects of a decade’s worth of post-disaster rhetoric, and you find a fleet hard on its luck, but that refuses to bow to the pressure of federal- and state-sanctioned erasure.

For Louisiana’s Vietnamese communities, the most visible instances of state neglect and community erasure have emerged in the context of man-made disasters, after which federal and local government is called upon to support its constituents.

In the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita (2005) and the BP Oil Catastrophe (2010), Vietnamese Louisianans have felt that their needs were pointedly ignored and sometimes, openly rejected, by Louisiana policymakers and politicians.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated the fleet, mooring every boat, tearing down every dock, and forcing coastal communities to flee their homes. Less than a month later, Rita toppled everything they rebuilt in the interim. Most fishermen lost both their businesses and their homes, which they struggled to reclaim or receive compensation for. At the same time, urban planners drew up the green dot map of the New Orleans metro area, which identified largely Black and other underserved, working class neighborhoods as “unlivable,” zoning them as “green space” surreptitiously earmarked for industrial production. The map was never used, but its implications were clear: certain neighborhoods were no longer welcome in the post-Katrina “New” New Orleans.

One of the green dots was placed over New Orleans East, home to the Vietnamese community hub of Versailles. Months after Katrina, Mayor C. Ray Nagin mandated that a landfill of toxic Katrina waste, called the Chef Menteur Landfill, be opened just two miles from Versailles’ abundant backyard kitchen gardens. To this day, homeowners water their fruits and vegetables through shared irrigation channels that would immediately be polluted by toxic waste seeping into the area’s groundwater. While the landfill was built, the community stopped the city from renewing the landfill’s lease a year later with the help of several service organizations and NGOs.

During the decision making process around where to dump Katrina waste, the city claims that did not know a community existed in the area of the proposed site. To this day, the contents of the Chef landfill remain, and many are concerned that it continues to poison the area’s groundwater.

This was the first time elders and youth, NGOs and the Vietnamese community, came together to assert their right to their homes, their land, and their place in Louisiana. This act of resistance in the face of state neglect and outright erasure shows, on the one hand, the community’s attachment to the space and place of Southeast Louisiana and their willingness to fight for it, and on the other, suggests that they had reached a tipping point. Knowing how displacement works, leaders in the community recognized that disaster in its broadest sense will never end; if their loved ones were to survive more storms like Katrina, they had to have not only a solid infrastructure around which to do so, they had to begin to make claims to it.

After Katrina, local decision makers “fixed” the problem of Vietnamese concerns by outright ignoring them. The case of the Chef Menteur Landfill provides a clear example of how Vietnamese erasure has been imbricated with socio-economic and environmental racism, threatening health risks and highlighting the city’s clear disregard for community practices and needs.

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Following BP’s devastation on the water in 2010, the state’s tactics shifted. Monetary compensation became the quick-fix approach used by British Petroleum and federal and state actors to address the “fisherman problem;” the promise of a check allowed them to walk away with no recourse, debt repaid, recovery “complete.”

Chú Bình[1], a leader among Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American shrimpers, confirms this, saying, “they spilled on us like we weren’t there; like they didn’t see us.” On its own, this erasure—the assumption that fisherfolk were not on the water, did not rely on it and most pointedly, did not matter—is damning. Add to this Bình’s assertion that “they’re compensating us like we don’t matter,” and it becomes clear that BP was a pivotal moment that showed first, how the state held private businesses accountable for disaster, and second, just how little the families and vast networks of small businesses that relied on the commercial fishing industry mattered.

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Mây Nguyễn spent her early years in Versailles and currently works with Vietnamese and other underserved communities through Tulane’s Law Clinic. After BP, she helped Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American fishermen file a subsistence suit that aimed to secure them compensation for the small amounts of shrimp and other bycatch they brought home to feed their families. Many outside the community balked at the suit, saying that Vietnamese fisherfolk were trying to get handouts from the government on unfounded claims.

Reflecting on this backlash, Nguyễn emphasized that erasing a community who has been underserved by government actors on a transnational scale is particularly insidious; pointing to the U.S.’s long history of mistreating Asian im/migrants, refugees, and Asian Americans, she emphatically explained: “when people are invisible, you can intern them. When people are invisible, you can do a lot to them.”  She went on, explaining that when everything is calm, it is easy to assert the value of one’s labor, but “when someone tries to take [our labor, our livelihoods] away from us, we will stand and defend it. That is resistance.”

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For forty years, Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American fisherfolk have had to fight for their right to participate in an industry of individuals competing for capital and security. From the day-to-day labor of shrimping to the complete devastation wrought by major disasters, Vietnamese commercial fishermen have experienced severe social and socio-economic shocks over the last decade, many predicated on a long history of industry harassment and state neglect attached to their refugeeism from Viet Nam to the U.S. In disaster, these histories of difference are amplified, creating an excuse for state and private actors to openly neglect the community’s needs, using their homes and boats as experiments in disaster “recovery.”

The cases of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and the BP Oil Disaster underscore just how significant visibility in the eyes of the state is to a community’s survival, particularly if they have had to struggle to be recognized as equal players in an industry that immediately treated them as outsiders. As Nguyễn highlighted, claims—to land, to community, to water, to self—are invaluable to asserting individual and group sovereignty in times of disaster and its aftermath. While the term “recovery” often circulates post disaster, Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American fisherfolk know they must prepare for anything and everything. And that preparation includes producing, maintaining, and defending a place and a community that resists state pressures to disappear in moments of hardship.

[1] Name has been changed.

Photo copyright Simi Kang. 

 

 

 

 

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