Since BP's oil rig exploded last month, life has gotten a lot tougher for Louisiana's minority fishermen, who were already struggling with over-harvesting, expensive fuel and weak seafood prices — not to mention a series of hurricanes.
The state's coastal fishing industry is a gumbo of Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, African-American, Native American and Hispanic boat and dock owners, deckhands and other workers. The industry includes Caucasian ethnic groups, like the entrenched Cajun community, Croatians and others from the former Yugoslavia, along with the Islenos — originally from the Canary Islands.
"Gone Fishing" signs, normally on doors at this time, are now mostly stashed at home. Byron Encalade, the African American owner of Encalade Fisheries in East Pointe a la Hache in Plaquemines Parish, said "our oyster season was supposed to open on May 1, and some fishermen here fueled and iced their boats to have them ready to go out for the first two or three days. They planned to bring in their first haul of the season and pay some bills. But of course that didn't happen."
A ban by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration closed portions of federal waters to fishing from southeast Louisiana to Pensacola, Fla. during May 2 to May 17, and could well be extended through the end of the month.
"Because of poor communication since the spill, East Point a la Hache fishermen are just about the last ones on the southeast coast to sign up with BP for HazMat training to lay booms," Encalade said. After Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser intervened on their behalf, members of the Louisiana Oyster Association and the South Plaquemines United Fisheries Coop signed with BP's "Vessels of Opportunity" program on May 8, two and a half weeks after spill. Other groups of fishermen managed to sign with BP a week earlier. The Coast Guard and BP are working with parish presidents and coastal leaders to deploy fishermen and volunteers to protect the shore and skim oil off the water.
"We've seen oil in the water before and reported it, but it was never anything like this," Encalade said. "All of us fishermen are praying that oil doesn't get into the marshes, where the soil's like coffee grounds and will quickly absorb it. I'm hoping this won't be the death of the oyster and shrimp beds, which are already over-harvested by industrial interests. But I'm not denying that it can't happen."
"We've always taken the oysters we needed and left the rest, and then turned to shrimping," Encalade continued. "That's how we were raised and trained — to keep the beds healthy and let them replenish. But industrial companies and big fishermen all the way from Texas to Alabama have been coming in here and removing everything they can find. The federal government hasn't done much to stop it. This wasn't a sustainable situation even before the oil spill."
One of the bright spots for often under-capitalized fishermen in Plaquemines is that Seedco Financial — a nonprofit, community-development institution. Seedco Financial opened Southeast Louisiana Fisheries Assistance Center in Belle Chase in 2008. Through that center, which serves African American, Asian and immigrant-owned communities in several parishes, Seedco Financial has since lent or granted $15 million to 545 fisheries in Southeast Louisiana, and given business counseling to another 150 fisheries.
Robin Barnes, senior vice president at Seedco Financial, said 55% of the Belle Chase center's fishery borrowers are minority owned, and many of the rest are Caucasian ethnics, like Croatians. Seedco Financial is supported by corporations, foundations and government agencies. The center has helped small, family-run businesses access federal, hurricane-recovery dollars. Byron Encalade used Seedco money to repair one of his Katrina-damaged boats and to buy another vessel.
Barnes said the marketing environment has been tough, with shrimp prices last summer dropping to their lowest level since the 1950s, hurt by competition from foreign imports. The center encourages fisheries to improve their business practices, expand their distribution networks and market products more strategically — by dealing directly with restaurants, farmers' markets and online customers. Fisheries are also advised to invest in value-added processing.
For the second year in a row, two student interns and a faculty member from Xavier University's business program will work at Seedco's assistance center this summer.
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Susan Buchanan is a contributing writer for The Louisiana Weekly.
Photo of oil containment boom by the U.S. Coast Guard, from Wikimedia Commons; photo of Byron Encalade by Susan Buchanan.