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.

Oysterman Ameal Wilson (Shawn Escoffery)

"I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not weep at the world - I am too busy sharpening my oysterknife." - Zora Neal Hurston

As Rodvid Wilson boards close the sides of his uncle's boat he hums Erykah Badu's "Window Seat" while preparing for a voyage through the Louisiana bayou into the bays above the Gulf of Mexico.  In the cabin behind the wheel sits Judge Williams, 67, an oystermanfor over 40 years. Behind him is a bunkbed, where he and his nephew Wilson often sleep. By the bed is a small gas stove. The smell of neckbones and hot metal mix as a pot of beans burns on one eye, and a small hatchet burns on the other.  Sitting next to the stove is half an oyster shell with cigarette ashes in it. A half-empty pack of Newports rests close by.

Riding with his good friend Ameal Wilson, Williams steers out into an open-water area near the Fucich Bayou wetlands, which sprout  around Louisiana's southeastern coast. Just beyond this area are the Black Bay and American Bay, where oil from BP's Deepwater Horizon spill have begun to encroach, threatening fish, birds and protective marshland. If the crude oil gets too deep, it'll kill off the seafood from which Williams and his crew make a living.

Back in Pointe a la Hache, a town on the east bank of the Mississippi River, is where Williams docks his boat, as do dozens of other African-American oyster harvesters, shrimp trawlers and fishers. It is, in fact, the area from which much of Louisiana and the rest of the United States get their oysters and shrimp; where Antoine Dominique "Fats" Domino hung out, and his lead guitar player Jimmy Moliere was born and raised; and, it's where black self-sufficiency has been more reality than slogan.

African Americans in lower Plaquemines Parish, where Pointe a la Hache and other black towns such as Davant and Phoenix are found, have raised their families and communities on this seafood for generations. Fishing in this area,  about 50 miles south of New Orleans, has also been a steady source of income and employment for them since the early 20th century.

At peak, hundreds of black fishers occupied this area, but their numbers have dwindled. Hurricane Katrina, which entered Louisiana through this region in 2005, retired many fishers early by destroying their boats and homes. Now, the question asked with dread is: Will the BP oil spill finish off what Katrina started: the vanishing of a proud, historic black fisher community?

As oil invades deeper, it could be that soon the oyster shells won't even be good enough to catch cigarette ashes in.

"We should take the Army's name off the Corps of Engineers," says Encalade, a vet. "They should be called the Political Corps of Engineers. They have been working for the politicians and the oil companies. They are not working for the people."

Under BP's claims process, for those losing revenue due to the spill, each fisher is entitled to $5,000 per month -- just a fraction of the $10,000 to $40,000 many collect monthly from their catches.  As for BP's "Vessels of Opportunity" program, where fishers can get trained to take their boats and crews out to deploy boom and skim oil, only a few of them have been called for work.  The black fisher community is so small and tight-knit - by their own estimates, only about 50 to 75 -- that they all know each other, and can name the handful presently working for BP.  

The west bank of the Mississippi River holdsall the action. That is where the Venice, La. command center is, where BP, the Coast Guard, the Army Corps of Engineers, EPA and other government agencies huddle to produce oil containment plans, which have been mostly failures. Venice is at the tip of the Louisiana coastal peninsula, and every day dozens if not hundreds of news reporters dart down the highway looking to find oil leaking onto shores and marsh, and for officials leaking information for their stories.