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Sunday, May 02, 2010

Shrimpers Fear Ruin From Oil Slick

By ANGEL GONZALEZ and MARK LONG VENICE, La. — Tuan Nguyen fled Saigon on April 30, 1975, the same day Ho Chi Minh's troops swept into the city to bring the lengthy war to a close. Mr. Nguyen's father, a wealthy businessman, arranged for a boat to spirit the family away from the South Vietnamese capital, leaving nearly all their worldly goods behind.

"We lost it all; all I had was a backpack," said the lean 50-year-old.

Now, almost exactly 35 years after his departure, Mr. Nguyen and his several hundred local compatriots face another fearsome twist of fate: a seemingly uncontrollable oil spill encroaching into Louisiana's rich wetlands shore, raising the specter of an environmental catastrophe and threatening to put his profitable shrimp distribution business, the largest in town, on hold indefinitely.

A deepwater well 50 miles offshore from Venice is gushing at least 5,000 barrels of crude a day into the Gulf of Mexico, and it could take months before BP PLC , the company responsible for the spill and cleanup, manages to finally cap the flow. The incident — damage from which some say could eclipse the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989 — has prompted a sweeping response from the federal government, and has brought down sharp criticism of BP and the operator of the rig that burnt and sank last week, Transocean Ltd.

The spill isn't the first livelihood-threatening challenge the local shrimp harvesters have faced down. Erosion wipes enough land to cover a football field off the coast here every 40 minutes; hurricanes including Katrina and Rita devastated the area; and for years the entire U.S. shrimp industry has struggled against a flood of imports of cheaper, farmed seafood from overseas.

Mr. Nguyen's home nation of Vietnam is among the biggest exporters of this farmed shrimp to the U.S., and is one of six countries that was slapped with tariffs on its imports in 2003 after the U.S. government ruled the country's exporters were dumping shrimp into the market at unfairly low prices.

Amid all these challenges, the number of days fishing in the Gulf was down 64% last year from the 2001-03 average, according to the Southern Shrimp Alliance industry group, while the prices garnered for the crustaceans were last year down between 42% and 45% from 2001, according to National Marine Fisheries Service data.

"The shrimping industry, even prior to the oil spill, has been struggling to make ends meet," said Deborah Long, a spokeswoman for the Southern Shrimp Alliance. "There's a double whammy going on, in that the price that fishermen got plummeted while the cost of fuel increased."

Plaquemines Parish's Southeast Asian community is a Cold War legacy--many immigrants fleeing to the area from the Communist takeover of Vietnam and the carry-over turmoil and slaughter in Cambodia. While people of Southeast Asian descent made up just over 2% of the parish's total population in 2000, Vietnamese and Cambodians have an outsized presence in the shrimp industry here. The weather and landscape is reminiscent of Southeast Asia's tropical wetlands, and the fishing life offers some independence.

"If you've got your own boat, you do what you want to do," said Steve Tran, 48, who first lived in California and Florida and worked in restaurants before coming here. Others have always been fishermen, like Chamroeun Kang, 57, who left Cambodia in 1982. Mr. Kang lives on a boat docked at Mr. Tran's distribution business while he builds his home, which he lost to Hurricane Katrina. Before the spill, he was looking "to work and make some money to build a home," he said. After being picked up with his family on the sea by a Maersk shipping vessel, Mr. Nguyen lived in a camp in Hong Kong for a year, and then moved to Paris for 2 years, where his older brother resided. Then he emigrated to the U.S., first to Pennsylvania. But "it was too cold," he said. Mr. Nguyen started the shrimp dock and distribution business here in 1989 and grew it to prosperity. "It was a normal business until Katrina hit" and entirely wiped it out, he said.

"That's when I learned to use the fork lift," said his wife, Kim Vo, who comes from a middle-class family and also lived in Pennsylvania, where she met her husband. She said that the insurance company never reimbursed the family for the storm losses and they had to rebuild everything themselves. But they rebounded: By last year, the business was moving 2 million pounds of shrimp a year, Ms. Vo said.

Now Mr. Nguyen is helping his fellow Vietnamese get work with the very company responsible for the spill. Under pressure by the U.S. Coast Guard to ramp up its response efforts, BP has offered contracts to the local shrimping community to help contain the oil and clean it from the Mississippi Delta's ecologically delicate marshes.

On Saturday, Mr. Nguyen was helping the shrimpers--many of whom speak English poorly--fill out applications for clean-up work. The application requires a physical address--and since many shrimpers live on boats, he puts in the address for his company, Sharkco Seafood International Inc.

Six fishermen in his office animatedly argued in Vietnamese, while Ms. Vo, translated for a reporter: The fishermen wanted to know who's going to pay for the fuel to get their boats out to sea to help clean up oil. BP would reimburse the fishermen, Ms. Vo said, but she recommended the fishermen "keep all their invoices," she said. The shrimpers would get paid between $1,000 and $2,000 per 12-hour day, depending on the size of their boat, Mr. Nguyen said. With harsh weather and rough seas hampering spill-response efforts, and with BP battling technical difficulties to shut down the leak, the road ahead for the shrimping business here looks grim, just as the May-December fishing season was set to begin.

"Now my business is paperwork," Mr. Nguyen joked, referring to his helping fishermen apply for clean-up contracts.

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