The news coverage of the Gulf oil spill might lead you to think black fishers did not exist or were not affected. That is not true, although they are a dwindling breed.
Correspondent Brentin Mock and photographer Shawn Escoffery ferreted them out and listened to their stories.
Black Gulf Fishers Face a Murky Future
By: Brentin Mock
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.
“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.
Standing in front of a trailer with BP posters taped on the door is Byron Encalade, president of the Louisiana Oystermen Association, who has called a meeting one Saturday afternoon to discuss their futures. One by one, black men and women of all ages step into the assembly area, their chief concern being how they’ll be compensated for their losses. The levees maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to protect them from hurricanes and floodshave been literally failing them left and right.
“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.
Judge Williams snakes his vessel through the bayou without the use of GPS, navigation devices or even a map. Back in Magnolia, Mississippi, where he’s from, he graduated from the 8th grade to the fishing boat and hasn’t looked back. The entire water-scape is in his head, and he doesn’t “fool with no maps.”
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.
If the oil spill shuts them down, both groups are faced with entering a society where the face of unemployment, poverty and incarceration is too often theirs. What else can they do but cast down their buckets where they are?
After a long day in the bay, Wilson lays down his hatchet, used earlier for breaking down clusters of oysters. Pulling off his rubber gloves, which have minces of oyster guts all over them — as does his face — he goes in the cabin for a plate of blackeyed peas and rice. After eating only a portion, he stops, complaining that he hasn’t been able to eat or sleep in days. From the pack of Newports he pulls a cigarette, lights it, and takes a couple drags before ashing on the deck, not far from piles of oysters.
“You barely see our people out here anymore,” he says. “This is a dying breed.”
Brentin Mock is a reporter for the New Orleans investigative reporting news Web site The Lens.