Vietnamese-American fishers fight for oil spill claim approval


For decades the Vietnamese-American fishing community in southeast Louisiana has used fish, shrimp, oysters and crab to feed the community and as currency to barter for other goods and produce.

It is a story common to the fishing culture throughout the Gulf Coast, with anglers, trawlers and trappers often distributing portions of their catch back into their local communities to feed others or through informal systems of trade.

But in the wake of the Gulf oil spill, that web of community networks has faltered and the subsistence claim process to compensate the fishers, and the communities they once helped support, is vague, difficult to navigate and appears to require documentation that many cannot provide, some Vietnamese-American fishers said during a news conference at the Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corporation office in eastern New Orleans Wednesday.

By definition, they say, their’s was an informal market and therefore largely without receipts.

With a translator on hand for the assembled media, the fishers scolded Gulf oil spill claims administrator Kenneth Feinberg, and his Gulf Coast Claims Facility, which took over administration of the claims process from BP on Aug. 23, on the difficulties inherent in the current subsistence claims.

Technically referred to as a Subsistence Use of Natural Resources claim, it is for anyone “who uses natural resources that have been injured, destroyed, or lost as a result of the Spill to obtain food, shelter, clothing, medicine, or other subsistence use,” according to the Gulf Coast Claims Facility.

The claims facility also states that “an individual who uses fish or other wildlife for food but can no longer do so because of the Spill may file a Loss of Subsistence Use claim.”

Of the 16,858 claimants who have applied for loss of subsistence, only one so far has been accepted, according to Gulf Coast Claims Facility statistics. That claimant received $3,000.

Amy Weiss, Feinberg’s spokeswoman, said in an email message Wednesday afternoon: “Anyone who files a subsistence claim must provide documentation and evidence that he or she has been impacted and that he or she lives off the land.”

“A claimant needs to show documentation on their heritage, their history, their having lived off the land,” Weiss wrote. “The (Gulf Coast Claims Facility) will then work with the claimants to personally tailor the claim.”

In the Vietnamese-American fishing community, most of their catch was sold at the docks. But many fishers saved anywhere from 5 percent to 25 percent of their catch to feed themselves, immediate and extended family members or friends, and to contribute to community gatherings, such as weddings, church functions, local festivals, or to barter for other seafood, fruit or vegetables.

The nondescript term “lives off the land” in the claims forms has perplexed many fishers, who said Wednesday that they fear they will be left in the lurch by a federal process they say doesn’t understand the traditional barter and gift-giving system they once used both for survival and to “live in harmony” with one another.

They said that post-spill they are unable to catch enough fish to sustain themselves.

Clint Guidry, president of the Louisiana Shrimpers Association, said all 600 commercial shrimpers in his association — not just Vietnamese-Americans — have expressed similar concerns and that many of the traditions are that of “the fisherman,” regardless of any further cultural difference therein.

The Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corporation, started in 2006 to help the Vietnamese-American recover from Hurricane Katrina, recently created a test system that hoped to address some the dilemmas in proving subsistence loss.

Three local fishers, Ve Nguyen, Thien Nguyen and Phuong Nguyen, applied for subsistence claims last month using affidavits from themselves and their extended dependants that described the loss instead of receipts. The corporation also calculated local retail prices for various types of seafood and then multiplied the applicable type by the amount the claimants and their dependants testified had been informally brought into their communities.

“Every time a friend had a birthday party, instead of a gift, I’d give seafood,” said Phuong Nguyen. “At weddings the same. I’d give a couple 100 pounds of crab, or when the local church has its annual fair, I might give four to five hundred pounds, at times even a thousand to help the church make money.”

While two of the claims are still pending, Phuong Nguyen received a denial letter last weekend. It was generic letter that simply said his application lacked supporting documentation.

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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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