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.

“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.

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.