Black Gulf Fishers Face a Murky Future

The African-Americans who make their living from shrimp and oysters on the Louisiana Gulf Coast have long been an endangered breed. The oil spill may be the final blow to their way of life.

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But the oil threat first headed east of the river, where it continues to infiltrate, long before winds took some of the oil west.  The state's Fisheries and Wildlife department first closed down the fishing areas on May 1. They were opened again on May 15, for limited trawling and fishing, but the people here know that the fishing areas might not be open much longer. They've already had more than their fair share of struggles.

"Through the years, due to unfair policies from both the state and federal governments, we've lost about 90% of our oyster farms, and probably the same amount of boats," says Encalade. "There are probably just a few black families left with oyster boats that support the rest of what's left of the small black fisherman community here."

The oyster farms, or oyster beds, are sea-bottom areas that can be privately leased for harvesting oyster seeds picked up from government-owned sea areas in the winter and spring. African Americans began owning their own boats in the 1960s and 70s, and soon after began owning oyster beds. However, says Encalade, these black owners were limited by government as to where they could fish and harvest.

In the late 70s, a group called The Fishermen and Concerned Citizens of Plaquemines Parish, led in part by Rev. Tyrone Edwards, helped reverse laws that prevented the use of hand dredging, or what's called "coonin'," used by small-time oystermen, usually black. The ban would have favored the larger industrial companies whose vessels could scoop up oysters in bulk.  

And then there was  Katrina, which made its debut in Louisiana by cresting the eastern levees surrounding these communities, demolishing virtually every home in this area. Fishers whose houses were boats lost their homes and businesses simultaneously.  Edwin "Peewee" Riley, an 84-year-old ex-fisher - one of the oldest standing -- lost his $150,000 boat in the hurricane, while Encalade lost three boats.

Those still in the fishing game have few other options. Many of them have been fishing since they were teens -- "Peewee" Riley since he was 14. It's all they know how to do. Few have diplomas beyond high school and some cannot read.

His nephew Rodvid Wilson, an ex-convict, was sent down South by his mother from New York to learn hard work and discipline from his uncle. Wilson admits his family job corps trip is paying off, not only in money but in character. He was cited last August, though, for illegal oyster dredging in unleased water bottoms - fishers still can only collect oysters where the government tells them to. He was cited that day along with five others whose last names suggest South American descendancy.

Another issue some black fishers complain about are the increasing number of "Mexicans" at the local marina. For decades, the Pointe a la Hache boat harbor was predominantly black. But today more Latino fishers are spotted than black ones.

As Williams' boat comes in close contact with a boat filled with people who appear to be Latino oystermen, Wilson raises a clump of oysters in the air like a toast and shouts "Oye!" They toast their oysters and yell back in response. Smiles circulate.

In private, there may be mild resentment, at worst, about their new South American co-workers, but when faced with each other, the black and brown fishers exchange greetings, beers and tips on where best to fish. It's a subtle acknowledgment, seemingly genuine in appearance, that they're all in this together. All of their livelihoods are threatened by the oil spill and they are among the most vulnerable.