“They spilled on us like we weren’t there”: Louisiana’s ‘invisible’ fishing community
By Simi Kang
Originally published in The Migrationist on December 6, 2016, posted here with revisions
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.”
Commercial fishing is a difficult business, even when the shrimp are large and the yields abundant. 2017 was a particularly trying year for Southeast Louisiana’s commercial fisherfolk. Seven 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 a market flooded with foreign, farmed-raised shrimp and falling dockside prices, consistently affect the region’s most under-resourced shrimpers, whose small boats cannot travel far beyond state lines, forcing them to harvest less shrimp than well-equipped rigs can find in deeper federal waters.
Many of the fleet’s smaller boats are owned by Southeast Asian fisherfolk, overwhelmingly Vietnamese and Vietnamese-Americans, 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. This overt environmental racism, simply defined as the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color, emerges at the intersection of Vietnamese-ness and Louisianian-ness, the commercial fishing industry, and the catch it requires to survive.
Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American fishermen represent almost two thirds 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 economically vulnerable and amplify the threat of disaster. In the early- and mid-1980s, Vietnamese fishermen faced harassment from white fishermen who felt that “the refugees” were taking jobs away from locals. Ku Klux Klan chapters across the Gulf of Mexico rallied against them as well, storming 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, as yet undiscovered cache, 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 Americanness, which to one degree or another, is tied directly to the commercial fishing industry and their ability to accumulate capital.
Significantly, the recent history of violence remains alive in the memory of every Vietnamese captain and deckhand as they prepare to go out on the water; most fishermen, regardless of their community affiliation, keep a gun in their boat’s cabin.
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 violent post-disaster rhetoric, and you find a fleet hard on its luck, but which refuses to bow to the pressure of federal- and state-sanctioned erasure.
For Louisiana’s Vietnamese community, the most visible instances of state-based community neglect 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 and Vietnamese-American Louisiana residents have felt that their needs were pointedly ignored and sometimes, openly rejected, by policymakers and politicians.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated the fleet, mooring every boat and forcing coastal communities to flee the region. Less than a month later, Rita toppled everything they rebuilt in the interim. Most fishermen lost their homes, which they struggled to reclaim or receive compensation for, and had to make significant repairs to their gear. Following both storms, officials deployed a rhetoric of community “resilience” to carry out racist and classed policies, from the Road Home Program, which made it difficult to secure housing, to creative zoning laws that cut off clean water and basic infrastructure to thousands of Louisianans of color. In the hands of policymakers, resilience has been used to paint Vietnamese fisherfolk as more capable of navigating the adverse effects of disaster given their pre-existing “experience” as refugees of the American War in Viet Nam. Displaced again following Katrina, the story went, they knew how to recover, rebuild community, and land on their feet faster than other Louisianians.
With this understanding of resilience, I call the processes that justifies environmental racism against Vietnamese and other Southeast Asian American fisherfolk “refugee resilience.” One of the most visible examples of how refugee resilience is linked to disaster happened not at sea, but in the community’s back yard.
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 New Orleans East’s Vietnamese neighborhood, Michoud’s, abundant backyard kitchen gardens. In an alarmingly transparent act of erasure, the city claimed they weren’t aware people lived in the area. While a landfill had many potentially harmful effects, the greatest was to the community’s ability to feed itself—for over four decades, homeowners throughout Michoud have cultivated backyard kitchen gardens via 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 its lease a year later with the help of several service organizations and NGOs. However, 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 to refugee resilience 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—both materially and rhetorically—following disaster, leaders in the community recognized that disaster in its broadest sense will never end.
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 resilience has been used to justify Vietnamese erasure and further, illustrates how this 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.
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 was meant to satisfy fisherfolk in the near-term, allowing the company to walk away with no recourse, debt repaid, recovery “complete.”
Chú Bình, 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 a damning snapshot of how “refugee resilience” plays out in Louisiana. 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 tenuously 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 factored in to BP’s, and later, the state’s, approach to clean up, compensation, and the coast’s and its peoples’ future health.
 Name has been changed.
Phan Plork, a Cambodian community leader and shrimper, explained that for him, BP was startling for another reason: “I had never seen fishermen take handouts. We work for ourselves and we take care of ourselves. But suddenly, these guys I worked next to were all lined up for food stamps, standing there with their wives and kids—no one had anything better to do.” Unlike Katrina, which hit the land hardest, BP completely rearranged the Gulf of Mexico and the Louisiana coast; from hosting one of the most vibrant shrimping economies in the world, Louisiana fisherfolk were suddenly without jobs for months on end. A lucky few were retained by BP and paid whether they left the dock or not. However, once in the Gulf, the work was grueling and dangerous—covering areas of the spill in groups, deckhands and captains alike sprayed Corexit, a chemical dispersant, across the oil patch for hours on end.
Plork was one of the lucky ones. While he lamented the lack of support others received after BP, he was able to bring home a regular paycheck and, most importantly for him, to continue using his boat. Even more lucky, unlike many of his peers, he has not experienced averse medical side-effects from exposure to Corexit. He knows others regularly end up in the emergency room, pointing to silver-dollar sized boils covering their neck and hands and wincing in pain as doctors do nothing, unable to treat either the catalyst or the symptoms. Plork makes clear that he is an anomaly—almost all of his friends suffered either the complete lack of income or, given the opportunity to earn money, are now suffering its bodily consequences.
What BP refused to take into account when they blanked the ocean’s floor with crude oil was that its effects would invariably rise to the surface. Across the Gulf of Mexico, shrimpers have seen a variety of impacts to their catch, including shrinking numbers of too-small brown shrimp in Louisiana, diseased unsellable shrimp speckled with black dots in Mississippi and Alabama, and the lowest yields in over six decades in Florida. Just as their catch continues to be harmed by BP, commercial fishermen of all stripes suffer the consequences, as shown above. However, this is particularly true of Vietnamese and other Southeast Asian-American fisherfolk, who have been forced to navigate and resist refugee resilience and its attendant environmental racism and policy-driven neglect.
May Nguyen grew up in Michoud and currently works with Vietnamese and other underserved communities through Tulane’s Environmental Law Clinic. After BP, she helped Southeast Asian-American fisherfolk address concerns over claims, seek temporary work, and navigate the legal language of compensation. After examining the paperwork BP’s lawyers were distributing at fishing docks and other community hubs, she realized that more often than not, the company and other actors were using language as a tool to withhold compensation from Vietnamese and Cambodian fishermen. Forms were put in front of them with little or no translation, after which they were urged to sign immediately by company or local lawyers intent on claiming their cut. Vietnamese fishing families lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in payouts from this practice, leading some to leave the industry for good.
While Nguyen worked to mitigate these issues, her primary project after the Catastrophe was to help Southeast Asian-American fisherfolk 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 and Cambodian fisherfolk were trying to get handouts from the government on unfounded claims.
Reflecting on this backlash, Nguyen 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.” Nguyen 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.”
For forty years, Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American fisherfolk have had to fight for their right to participate in their industry. 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 environmentally racist practices to deny rights, access, and even the existence, of Vietnamese communities in Louisiana.
The cases of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and the BP Oil Catastrophe 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 Nguyen 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, particularly in the face of refugee resilience. 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.
Simi Kang is a scholar, artist, educator, and community advocate who engages Asian American collaborative resistance as a site for imagining ecologically and economically just futures. In her capacity as Coastal Project Coordinator at South Louisiana-based non-profit Coastal Communities Consulting, Inc., Simi works with Southeast Asian/American fisherfolk to understand how state policy impacts their communities at the intersection of resistance, resilience, and displacement. She is currently a Ph.D. Candidate in the Feminist Studies program at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Her work has appeared in The Asian American Literary Review, Kartika Review, Hyphen Magazine, Jaggery: A DesiLit Arts and Literature Journal, Open Rivers: Rethinking Water, Place & Community,Gravy Quarterly, and Gastronomica.