Gulf shrimpers still worry about spill, Vietnamese way of life

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WAY OF LIFE — The Tran family at work on their Louisiana dock on Oct. 6, after a shrimp trawler makes a rare stop. In addition to three Mexican workers, Jeremy Tran is pictured standing third from the left, with his father next to him and his cousin, Trung Tran, third from the right, standing next to the younger Tran’s sister-in-law and his brother. photo by Mari Sakamoto/Kyodo News

NEW ORLEANS, La. — Vietnamese American shrimpers are slowly returning to their boats after the worst oil spill in U.S. history, but many are anxious about their futures working in the Gulf of Mexico.

Although authorities have nearly reopened all federal waters following the April 20 BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion that sent millions of barrels of oil pouring into the gulf, hurdles remain.

Besides finding crews to man the ships, there are concerns about what is being hauled in and questions about what happens next.

Jeremy Tran is a seasoned veteran. Having spent a good part of his life on his family’s shrimp trawlers, the 37-year-old said he never faced anything like it before.

“My biggest worry is for next year,” he told Kyodo News recently from his family’s dock in the Louisiana bayou about 160 kilometers (99.4 miles) from New Orleans. “I don’t know if people will survive next year or if the seafood will survive.”

Times are tough for his family as well as an estimated 45,000-60,000 other Vietnamese Americans making livings in the seafood industry from waters off Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas, according to statistics from Boat People SOS Inc., a nonprofit organization that tracks such figures.

As the largest group, the Vietnamese, along with Cambodians and Laotians, immigrated to the United States in large waves from 1975-1990.

While the majority settled in California, others spread across the gulf to start new lives. In little over a generation families, like the Trans, banded together to build businesses, often linked to seafood.

After the disaster, some in the tight-knit community faced bankruptcy and risked losing vessels, homes and more, the shrimper said. Others had to borrow money.

“There is nothing else if we can’t survive,” Tran said. Much of the Vietnamese community lives in East New Orleans where the first refugees built a foundation, expanding from the Versailles Arms Apartments.

Now there are churches, temples, coffee shops, grocers and other mom-and-pop shops in a concentrated area.

“We are dying over here,” he said. Although speaking for all Louisiana shrimpers, he was mostly worried about his community. “Our Asian culture that we spent over 30 years building up won’t last.”

None of the three Tran trawlers are operating, so when the 27-meter (29.5-yard) Star Gulf docked on a recent Thursday afternoon his family sprang to action.

During the four-hour job, Tran managed equipment unloading 500 bags of shrimp.

His younger brother manned a forklift. His sister-in-law weighed and cataloged shrimp. His father supervised. His mother held down the office.

Trung Tran, 56, a distant cousin, pitched in while waiting to take his own boat out.

Of greatest concern to them is whether the vulnerable, young shrimp withstood the spill in large enough numbers to mature and propagate.

“We don’t know about the production,” Tran’s sister-in-law Ngoc added, explaining the impact will be unknown until next year when they trawl for those shrimp. “We don’t know if there will be shrimp to catch or not.”

Tran unloaded shrimp with no visible anomalies but a four-month stint with BP’s cleanup efforts has made him wary.

As part of a 30-boat task force he saw dead birds, turtles and fish trapped in oil resembling “peanut butter.”

During the busiest days each boat, he said, brought up to 70 bags full of oil, with at least 25 being collected daily.

More recently he said he was troubled by reports of sheen on the water’s surface from the heavily used dispersants.

Still he is luckier than some who have been out of work and did not receive compensation from BP. It is an uphill battle for those with language barriers while impossible for those with no documentation to file claims.

The shrimper recalled better days when his family worked from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week during the busiest season and longs for those days again.

His sister-in-law remembered that 150-200 boats came in and out of their dock from May to December 2009. This year only about 25-30 have done so.

Daniel Nguyen, co-project manager of technical assistance for Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Center, a nonprofit organization helping out-of-work shrimpers and fishermen, hopes his community can rebound.

He pointed to hardy shrimpers like Tran’s cousin who was born in Vietnam and endured hardships, beginning in 1954 when his country split.

After uprooting themselves, his family settled in Phuoc Tinh, a Southern village, where they subsisted on fishing until Saigon fell on April 30, 1975.

Then, at 18, he escaped with about 50 relatives in their fishing boat. After floating for days they were rescued by Americans and brought to Guam.

They later moved across the United States. He remembered horrible working conditions when he rounded up chickens at his first job in Texas. Despite the menial jobs he never lost sight of his dream — to become self-employed.

Looking back, the 56-year-old recalled fighting discrimination and overcoming fears after the Ku Klux Klan once burned down his friend’s boat.

Despite owning his business, he has not been immune to adversity. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 destroyed his trawler, but he rebounded at least until the oil spill occurred.

“In the present we know it is okay because BP is giving us some claims, some of us are getting jobs to clean up, but in the future we are not sure,” he said through an interpreter. “Next year we don’t know.”

Unlike the other political or natural disasters, Nguyen said the spill impacts the “feasibility of an entire job industry.”

“How can you rebuild if there are no jobs?” the 21-year-old asked. Working for the organization to improve East New Orleans’ economic development, he also oversees a project that could offer a solution for some.

Plans to create a large urban farm there were already under way when the spill occurred. The first phase of the plan begins in 2011.

Nguyen believes that if the shrimpers and fishermen cannot return to their old jobs, they could become farmers. He said it may be the answer to the job woes of older workers, in particular, who do not speak English or possess many skills.

Borrowing from the older Tran’s experiences overcoming adversities, Nguyen hopes the resilient community can prove able to surmount the latest obstacle.

“The important thing is together we are strong as a community but if we are individuals we are not strong,” Tran said.

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