Vietnamese Shrimpers May Lose Way Of Life Again

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Vietnamese fisherman flocked to the Biloxi, Miss., because it was a lot like home. But the shrimpers here, as in other places in Gulf, are worried their way of life will come to an abrupt end because of the huge oil spill. Many were hit hard by Hurricane Katrina and are dismayed to find their livelihoods threatened once again.

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The ongoing oil spill in the Gulf is also threatening the livelihoods of thousands of fishermen. But as Phoebe Judge of Mississippi Public Broadcasting reports, one small community in Biloxi is especially worried.

PHOEBE JUDGE: It's a quiet morning at Lee's Market in Biloxi, and manager VyVy Nguyen(ph) has just arrived at work and is surveying the aisles.

VYVY NGUYEN (Manager, Lee's Market): We all have all different types of tofu. They have fried tofu, spiced tofu, fresh tofu.

JUDGE: At any one time, the market carries over 20,000 items from Southeast Asia. Nguyen says that helps them serve their customer base, which is 90 percent Vietnamese, many of whom are fishermen. The market is also a gathering spot for the latest news, and lately that news has been dominated by talk of oil. Even though the oil spill has not reached Mississippi, the threat looms large.

Kiet Nguyen is with the Vietnamese social service agency, Boat People S.O.S.

Mr. KIET NGUYEN (Boat People S.O.S.): It's enormous how they reacted to the oil spill. The main thing which is, what am I going to do? For this is my livelihood and if there is no shrimping, what can I do?

JUDGE: Many Vietnamese began immigrating to Mississippi and other Gulf states in the early 1980s, drawn by the opportunity to work on the water, says Magda LeLeaux. She's been working with the Vietnamese community for 19 years, as program director of the Migration and Refugee Center at Biloxi.

Ms. MAGDA LELEAUX (Program Director, Migration and Refugee Center): We attracted shrimpers, fishermen. This is really a profession where they feel comfortable because it reminds them so much of Vietnam. That's what those were doing, you know, those who came here to the coast.

JUDGE: Vietnamese-owned shrimp and fishing boats are often completely crewed by fellow Vietnamese, creating a tight knit community. Ginni Tran's(ph) father came from Vietnam to work on a shrimp boat in Biloxi before she was born. She now works for the National Alliance Vietnamese American Service Agencies, and helps provide micro loans to Vietnamese shrimpers and crabbers.

Ms. GINNI TRAN (Operational Community Builder, National Alliance Vietnamese American Service Agencies): It's kind of a joke is, if your last name is Tran or Nguyen and you're Catholic, 75 percent of the time I'm related to you.

JUDGE: Tran and others are working with the community to learn how last month's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico will affect them. They pushed to have the information provided by oil officials in Vietnamese and not just English. And last week, more than a hundred Vietnamese fishermen packed into the D'Iberville Civic Center to hear a BP proposal about how they could be paid to help BP clean up the oil spill.

Jackie Hsu(ph) and her husband have been shrimping in Biloxi for 30 years. She says they're angry and feel that BP owes them.

Ms. JACKIE HSU (Shrimper): If the boat cannot go out for shrimping, they need to give us alternative to work.

JUDGE: Last year's shrimping season was especially bad for many Biloxi fishermen. Prices were low and they faced increased competition from imported shrimp.

Ms. HSU: Harder and harder every day.

JUDGE: And the fear now is those difficult days may become even worse, if engineers can't plug the leaks spewing thousands of barrels of oil into the Gulf each day.

For NPR News, I'm Phoebe Judge in Gulf Port, Mississippi.

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