Gulf Coast Fishermen Face Maze of Barriers

For the people who live on the coast and make their living on the water in the fishing industry, the recovery period is only just beginning.

By Julianne Hing May 21, 2010

It’s now been a full month since the offshore Deepwater oil rig exploded in the Gulf Coast, killing eleven workers and setting off the oil spill that’s still yet to be fully contained. Over the weekend, BP congratulated itself for successfully setting up an insertion tube to take crude oil gushing from the leaks and funnel it away from the water. And yesterday, the oil, seeping out of the underwater leaks at a rate of 5,000 barrels a day had reportedly reached the coastal Louisiana wetlands. But for the people who live on the coast and make their living on the water in the fishing industry, the recovery period is only just beginning. According to local groups, Vietnamese American fishermen are feeling the impact particularly hard. BP, which has admitted responsibility for the oil spill and is partially funding local cleanup efforts, has instituted a program called the Vessels of Opportunity Program for out-of-work fishermen to take part in the cleanup efforts. Pay is based on boat size, and contingent on a person’s getting properly trained to head out in the water. Most of the work thus far has been to ferry materials to and from shore and assist with placing the containment booms, the plastic shields meant to stem the spread of the oil. But Vietnamese fishermen were locked out of those initial outreach efforts, said Trinh Le, an organizer with the Hope Community Development Agency in Biloxi, Mississippi. After fishermen sign up on a database–"more like a waitlist," Le said–they sit through a compressed four-hour training. And at the end, they are made to sign worker contracts if they want to be hired to work. Contracts that, until local groups took BP to court, forced fishermen to assume all liability for any personal injuries or damages their own equipment sustained while they were working on BP’s oil spill cleanup. "Everyone’s being warned not to sign anything without legal counsel present," said Le. "But there’s a lack of affordable or trustworthy legal advice available. They’ve been thrown into a legal world that they don’t understand." And many people’s basic rights and entire livelihoods are at stake. According to John Nguyen, the Environmental Justice Coordinator with the Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association of New Orleans, 16,000 people had signed up and been approved to be take part in the VOP, but only 680 vessels had been deployed. And since the trainings were done entirely in English in the beginning, many local Vietnamese fishermen were unable to take part. People who do not take part in the VOP can also file a claim with BP, but BP pays different rates based on people’s job titles. According to Le, BP is paying boat captains a flat $5,000 fee, and deck hands around $2,500. But BP forces deck hands to show papers that prove their employment, and many deck hands don’t have access to their employers’ licenses. Those who cannot produce paperwork do not get paid. Le said there was no corner of the local fishing community that had not been hit. The shrimping, crabbing and fishing is done primarily by men, but women work in the seafood processing facilities. And that industry has been halted by the oil spill, perhaps indefinitely. Entire families are out of work, desperate for information, and looking for answers. The fishing season, which lasts about seven months, was just kicking off before the spill. Nguyen said families were just coming out of a slow season, getting ready for the beginning of the fishing season when people make the bulk of their yearly income. The situation has reached a frenzied state. Last week Congressman Joseph Cao dispatched a staff member to the Gulf Coast to help coordinate fishermen and serve as a liasion between the community, BP and government officials. Cao announced earlier this week he was extending the deadline on repayment for small business loans for businesses that had been affected by the oil spill. But according to Le, the BP oil spill is forcing everyone in the Gulf Coast to re-evaulate long term solutions, now that the fishing industry has been hurt so badly. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images