Delta’s Black Oystermen Seeking Cleanup Work and Clinging to Hope


POINTE A LA HACHE, La. — Way down in the delta, just south of the Belle Chasse Ferry at Beshel’s Marina here, black men with work-worn hands and several generations of fishing in their blood sat around on old milk crates, hoping for a piece of the oil cleanup action that seems to have bypassed their little stretch of the bayou.

Nearly all of them have taken BP’s courses on oil cleanup, but few said they had been called to work; their little skiffs remain moored and forlorn, tied side-by-side like wretched sardines.

“The little guy loses again,” one of them lamented.

There was Hurricane Katrina five years ago. And now the great spill.

But even before those two blows, the fishermen in Pointe a la Hache and other small, historically African-American fishing towns and villages that dot the east bank of the Mississippi River in Plaquemines Parish, south of New Orleans, have long had to fight hard for every dollar, every oyster and every opportunity they could drag out of the bayou.

In decades past they have dealt with the red-lining of leases on the richest oyster beds and waterways. In the 1970s and ’80s they said they fought the laws against hand-dredging that disproportionately limited the work of the black oystermen. Many have been nudged out by the major fishing operations owned mostly by native whites and Europeans. And they have even had to compete with migrant Hispanic workers who are willing to work for little, and who filled the void when Hurricane Katrina ran off so many of the locals.

The very way of life in these fishing villages has been in danger as younger generations opted for work in other industries, like the local coal processing plant, or moved in search of education and fresh opportunities.

“You might see a time when there ain’t no more black fishermen around here,” said Warren Duplessis, 49, a deckhand for a two-man oystering operation. “Because now you can’t raise no children off the side of a boat. Nowadays you’ve got to take him out of here, let him learn something with the books. No future in what we’ve been bleeding and sweating for all our lives.”

With so many deckhands making so little money, maybe $100 a day, much of what they did make, in cash, was never reported. But now, to get loans to recoup on damages or lost income, or to be compensated by BP, they said they needed to show documents to prove how much they made.

“Their issues are institutional and historical in a sense that they’ve been struggling for a long time,” said Jeremy Stone, with Coastal Communities Consulting, a nonprofit that provides economic development services to disadvantaged entrepreneurs along the Louisiana coast. “These guys are on the margins of solvency all the time anyway, and they don’t have a lot of resources to collateralize debts.”

And they lack simple information about how to apply for aid, get small-business loans or meet filing deadlines, so many continue to struggle.

“We’re looking at a long road,” said Byron Encalade, president of the Louisiana Oystermen’s Association, which represents African-American and other nonwhite oystermen. “It’s not going to get any better. It’s getting worse.”

Mr. Encalade said BP had not been hiring local black fishermen in large numbers to help with the cleanup, pointing to dozens of moored boats at the marina, which is owned by a white Plaquemines Parish city councilman but is almost completely occupied by black fishermen and oystermen, as some degree of proof of the untapped work force here.

“A lot of them will leave,” Mr. Encalade said of the black bayou-men and women. “Some never came back after Katrina; all of this is just eroding our traditions.”

Steve Rinehart, a BP spokesman, said the company was unaware of any groups being left out of the cleanup efforts and had tried to be as inclusive as possible. “The selection is by vessel, not by person,” he said. Criteria include a safety check of charter vessels and crew training.

Mr. Rinehart said recent changes to BP’s vessels-of-opportunity program would allow rotation of the 3,000 vessels he said were registered.

While officials have reopened oyster season, which will surely mean a boost to the morale and pocket book of these oystermen, Mr. Encalade warned against high hopes of a hefty harvest.

He said the fresh water that had been diverted from the Mississippi River into the bays and bayous to keep out the oil had killed off much of the oysters, which need the right balance of salt and fresh water to survive. And officials had reclaimed many of their leases, he said.

Before the spill, Mr. Encalade said, he had 1,500 acres of oyster bed. Now he is down to about 300, with most of his oysters dead, picked clean from their shells by crabs and scavenger fish.

Others sang a similar tune.

Roger Moliere Sr., 71, sat perched behind the wheel of his truck, watching his son and a deckhand unload the skiff he built with his own hands when Junior was just a boy.

“When you’re poor and black and this is all you know, what else are you going to do?” Mr. Moliere said, grimacing. “Was a time if a man lost his job he could always come down to the bayou and feed his family. But this here, what you got happening now, this here might finish us off.”

Mr. Moliere, now retired after 52 years as an oysterman, handed down his boat to his son, Roger Jr. He said he had raised his family on what he could gather from the bayou, after dropping out of school in the fifth grade to help after his father left.

Inside the marina’s office, Elton Encalade, of the second Encalade clan in town, stood by a window and looked out on the semicircle of men on milk crates.

“Take a look out there,” he said, motioning outside. “See what they’re doing? Sitting, talking, nobody working. We’ve been out on that water all of our lives, but look what we’re doing now.”

He shook his head and took a long, deep gulp of the beer in his hand. “We just have to tough it out,” he said. “I know I’m going to make it. I know it like I know them waters out there. I’m going to make it.”

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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