– Excerpt from the book “The Story of Alabama in Fourteen Foods” –
In August 2010, two months after tar balls from the BP oil spill washed ashore in Bayou La Batre, Alabama, I visited the Boat People SOS office in town, unsurprisingly abuzz with activity. I soon sat with four Vietnamese American seafood processors and Vinh Tran, a Bayou La Batre native who translated for us. All four of the processors had worked in the seafood industry since their arrival in Bayou La Batre at least twenty years prior. They had been out of work since the oil spill nearly four months earlier and had received checks from BP, but these provided a bare minimum of assistance.
With no other job skills and no English language skills, their opportunities for other work were extremely limited. Yet they had no thought of leaving Bayou La Batre. Their families were there, their communities, their homes, and hopefully someday soon, their jobs. So there was nothing to do but wait until they could work again, though they had received no indication of when that would be. “Everything is a wait,” one woman explained. “We sit and wait for the shops to call us back. It is suffocating.”
In Bayou La Batre, from Native Americans to French settlers to today, residents have always drawn sustenance from the sea. In the shallow waters of the sound and farther into the Gulf, they shrimped, fished, and gathered oysters and clams. By the early twentieth century, following a major hurricane in 1906, Bayou La Batre was known as a small fishing village on the tenuous Alabama coastline, with an identity entirely separate from the city of Mobile.
Beginning in 1915, shrimp canneries opened in Bayou La Batre, making it the center of Alabama’s seafood industry. By 1923, Bayou La Batre boasted five canneries and twenty seafood dealers. “Some three hundred families make a living working in shrimp in the dreamy, drifting town of Bayou la Batre,” wrote a WPA worker in 1939.
In the 1950s, shrimp became commonplace in cookbooks and restaurants across the nation. Shrimp production increased 60 percent in Alabama in 1950 and reached an all-time high in 1952. Bayou La Batre had replaced all of its canneries with freezing plants by 1965.
However, the same freezing technology that created the modern shrimp industry in America also paved the way for foreign imports. By 1960, shrimp from forty nations flooded inland markets, and because it entered the United States untaxed and below market value, foreign shrimp slashed the demand and the price for Gulf Coast shrimp. Desperate to keep up, many Gulf Coast shrimpers purchased larger boats to get farther into the Gulf, substantially increasing their personal debt.
At the same time, the cost of fuel skyrocketed along with operating expenses and loan interest rates. The year 1974 was a solemn one for Bayou La Batre shrimpers. Several processors went out of business, and sixty to seventy boats out of the fleet of three hundred were sold. Ironically, shrimp were abundant that year, but it didn’t pay to catch them because diesel was expensive and prices were low. Beginning in 1975, shrimp farming took off, adding more pressure to Gulf Coast shrimpers.
In the late 1970s, an influx of Southeast Asian refugees, including Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians, settled in the Gulf Coast after fleeing war and genocide in their homelands. Gulf Coast geography, weather, and landscape resembled the tropical wetlands of Southeast Asia, and many of the refugees arrived with highly developed fishing skills, “usually the product of several generations of experience at sea.” Bayou La Batre saw its first wave of immigrants in 1979. Within five years, Southeast Asians made up one-third of the town’s population. Most took jobs in the seafood industry, first as processors, and later as fishermen and shrimpers. Vietnamese immigrants began buying shrimp boats in 1982, and after five years, had amassed a fleet of sixty boats. In 1984, a Vietnamese processing plant opened.
Local reaction to the newcomers was mixed. Some local shrimpers resented Southeast Asian shrimpers who increased competition over a limited resource in a difficult market. Language barriers caused clashes over the rules of the sea. On the whole, however, the immigrants were regarded as diligent and tireless workers in a town that had always prided itself on hard work.
Southeast Asian immigrants also infused local communities with a new cultural element. They opened Asian markets, restaurants, and shops that now pepper the Alabama coastline around Bayou La Batre. This cultural exposure helped to desegregate seafood processing work in Bayou La Batre. New job opportunities opened for African Americans, who were traditionally marginalized in lower paying work.
But although Southeast Asian immigrants carved out homes and livelihoods along the Gulf Coast, shrimping was never an easy profession. From 1980 to 2007, American annual consumption of shrimp jumped from 1.4 pounds/person to 4.1 pounds, largely due to the increasing popularity of seafood restaurant chains. But foreign imports, governmental shrimping regulations, high gas prices, insurance costs, and interest rates continued to shrink profit margins for Gulf Coast shrimpers.
In December 2003, the Eat Alabama Wild Shrimp Committee formed to support Gulf Coast shrimpers who found themselves battling “the worst economic slump in the industry’s history” due to an influx of inexpensive foreign imports that had dropped the price of domestic shrimp to lows not seen in thirty years. But before the committee’s work could begin in earnest, came Hurricane Katrina.
On August 29, 2005, Bayou La Batre found itself at the eastern edge of Hurricane Katrina’s path. The storm surge, the worst on record in American history, swelled to nearly twenty feet and flooded the town. As Mayor Stan Wright put it, “what Bayou La Batre experienced from Hurricane Katrina was pure hell.”
Eight hundred homes were flooded beyond repair, only 8 percent of which were covered by flood insurance. More than 2,000 of the town’s 2,300 residents were forced from their homes, at least temporarily. A total of 200 of Bayou La Batre’s 300 shrimp boats were destroyed, dozens of which lay eerily stranded in trees along the coast. Virtually all of the waterfront businesses were in ruins.
Yet, despite the wreckage, most Bayou La Batre families stayed to rebuild. As Mayor Wright says, “it seems like these people here are special, they can take a lickin’ and keep on tickin’. They’re tough folks.”
It was a difficult road back, with boats, traps, fishing equipment, houses, stores, and offices destroyed. Two months after the storm, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had refused to remove twenty-nine of the thirty-two moored shrimp boats and had delivered fewer than half of the trailers promised to stranded Bayou La Batre residents. Many simply returned to their storm damaged homes.
The stranded shrimp boats were ultimately recovered in September 2006 through funds raised by former US presidents Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush. Yet, those who returned to shrimping found the industry tougher than ever. The cost of fuel was still high, the price for shrimp still low, and the hurricanes kept coming. The year 2008 brought Hurricanes Gustav and Ike and gas prices higher than four dollars per gallon. Shrimp production fell to its lowest level since 1975. In 2009, domestic shrimpers struggled to bring in 250 million pounds of shrimp while foreign imports surpassed 1.2 billion pounds. Further, a nationwide recession reduced domestic demand for shrimp. But incredibly, there was more to come.
On April 20, 2010, a British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, one hundred miles from Bayou La Batre. The spill quickly became one of the worst ecological disasters in American history.
On May 2, 2010, less than two weeks after the oil spill, Bayou La Batre citizens gathered for the town’s annual Blessing of the Fleet, a centuries-old tradition originating in southern European fishing communities. I slipped in for the final minutes of mass. The church was cool, bright, and crisp with the scent of incense, a blunt contrast to the groggy rural summer festival outside: the food aromas, spurts of music from the stage, and the train fashioned from a tractor with plywood cars that children ride for a dollar. “Even in this time of anxiety,” the archbishop announced, “we give thanks.”
Outside, the festivities stretched from the Vietnamese food booth behind the church to the boats decorated and moored at the docks. When the moment arrived for the Blessing of the Fleet, the archbishop of Mobile, Thomas Rodi, and the Vietnamese American priest of St. Margaret’s, Rev. Bieu Nguyen, stood together at the podium of a raised platform in front of the water and festooned boats. Archbishop Rodi called to mind the biblical seas teeming with life and asked God to bless these boats, their equipment, and all who used it. He asked God to fill the nets of his disciples, to give them an abundant catch. And he addressed the palpable anxiety over the oil, which had not yet reached Alabama’s shore. No one knew whether it would, or what to expect if it did.
About a month after the Blessing of the Fleet, on June 6, the oil reached Bayou La Batre, with tar balls washing ashore. A federal moratorium on shrimping and fishing came just before the start of the 2010 shrimping season. At the start of the oil spill, thousands of Gulf Coast shrimpers and fisherman struggled to get reimbursed for lost wages. Because they were usually paid in cash under the table, most did not have the documentation required to make claims against BP for lost wages. BP responded by accepting affidavits from boat captains in lieu of tax returns and W2 forms to evidence a fisherman’s income. But because these affidavits would have been signed admissions of tax evasion, most boat captains did not provide them.
The oil spill was particularly devastating for coastal Southeast Asian American communities, 80 percent of whom worked in the seafood industry, including many whole families. The lack of English language skills prevented many fishermen from navigating BP forms, resources, and customer service lines. Claims forms and posters initially appeared in English only. The whole claims system was online, and many fishermen lacked internet access. Fishing area closings were announced on English-speaking radio stations, costing Southeast Asian American fishermen citations from the coast guard.
At the time of the spill, Southeast Asian Americans operated at least one-third of the fishing boats on the Gulf Coast, and Vietnamese Americans owned roughly half of those. The first Vietnamese American translators BP hired for safety and cleanup training spoke with a North Vietnamese dialect and used Communist terminology to address Vietnamese American shrimpers who had fled the North Vietnamese Communist regime thirty years earlier. These translators were replaced, but a general shortage of translators persisted.
Some Southeast Asian American fishermen and shrimpers did receive the standard BP checks providing $5,000 for boat owners and $2,500 for deckhands. For families falling behind on home and boat mortgages, however, these payments offered little comfort. Others worked for the Vessels of Opportunity program, which chartered local boats and paid fishermen for oil spill cleanup. Yet, this work was only temporary and only a small fraction of those who enrolled were activated.
Even so, the people in the Boat People SOS office did not wear a posture of defeat. They greeted and talked with each other, played with the babies, smiled at me. Upon leaving, I drove to the Vietnamese Buddhist temple, located down a nondescript red dirt road. In the depth of summer, the figure of Buddha shined a stark white against green pines and blue sky.