One Year After BP Oil Spill, Asian Fishermen Struggle to Recover

One Year After BP Oil Spill, Asian Fishermen Struggle to Recover

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 On a recent early morning, crabber Siriporn Hall, 60, sets out with her crew of two on the waters off the shores of Mississippi eager to see what the day’s catch will bring.

The crew anchors near the Petit Bois Island on a sunny day as large waves lap against Hall’s boat. About this time last year Hall’s boat was parked in her front yard of her Alabama home with hundreds of dry crab pods stacked along her property line. She had been out work for months and was instead busy tabulating her mounting monthly bills.

Not much has changed for Hall since last year’s Gulf Coast area oil spill, which halted her crabbing business temporarily. She returned to crabbing last October, but Hall says she has had difficulty selling her catch.

“Oh, it’s bad. You know we can barely make a living,” said Hall, a Thai American. “We can hardly find the crab. Nobody wants to buy it. The factory doesn’t want to buy it. The seafood [company] doesn’t want to buy it.”

The expedition to Petit Bois Island came a day after Hall says she was denied a claim from the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, or GCCF, which was established last August by BP. It was opened with a $20 billion compensation fund following the Deep Water Horizon explosion and oil spill.

The Deep Water Horizon explosion on April 20 happened as the result of a failure with the well’s blow out preventer and “loss of control over the pressure in the well,” according to BP. Eleven people were killed in the accident and more were injured.

Last June Kenneth Feinberg, who had oversaw the Sept. 11 victims compensation fund, was named administrator of the BP claims fund.

A total of 518,095 individuals and businesses have been paid as of June 24, according to the GCCF. Some 87,264 claims have been denied.

Community organizations say those affected by the oil spill are still picking up the pieces.

“People are still hurting,” said Grace M. Scire, Gulf Coast development director of the Boat People SOS. “The fishermen, especially the oystermen, don’t know when they will get back to where they were before the oil spill. There are a lot of stressors and a lot of mental health issues, even among the children.”

About $42 million was distributed for behavioral health payments in Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida and Alabama. Those impacted by the oil spill like Hall say they are more concerned about the future of the fishing industry than the BP claims process.

Instead of catching crab, Hall has been fishing for Spanish and King mackerel ever since about 50 percent of her 500-pound catch of crabs died en route to a buyer in Atlanta.

“We’ve had a hard time selling our crab,” said Hall breaking into a laugh. “The seafood [company] from Atlanta came and got it for a little while and now the thing is my crabs [have] died. They died easily and smelled real, real bad. So they cancelled. Here I am. We cannot sell the crab. So we just came out here and went fishing.”

Hall says she believes the “corrosive water” in the area from the oil spill is responsible for the crabs dying so easily. But the 60-year-old’s belief that the winter months this year will bring a better catch of crabs strengthens her resolve.

Although rumors are circulating about the safety of Gulf Coast seafood, officials with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration say it is safe to eat.

“We’re very confident that the steps that we have put in place to assure the safety of seafood have worked,” said Don Kraemar, acting director of the FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, in a press release. “We put in an extensive program of sampling, at that time and since then, and the results have consistently been 100 to 1,000 times below our levels of concern. So, we’re quite confident that the seafood that’s in commercial channels is safe.”

BP established a $500-million research initiative to study the potential long-term effects to people’s health and the environment.

Community organizations working with those affected by the oil spill say Hall’s story is not uncommon in the Gulf Coast. Other Asian American fishermen have sought the help of these community organizations to help them recover.

“In my opinion, the Gulf Coast has not fully recovered since the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. Many affected individuals have not returned to their jobs as deckhands, boat captains, oyster shuckers and etcetera,” said Tuan Nguyen, deputy director of the Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corporation in Louisiana. “Not all claims have been paid either.”

Those affected by the oil spill also received help from organizations like JACL, which in May held its Environmental Justice Youth Summit in New Orleans, La. Summit attendees were waist-deep in their work, planting marsh grass in a wildlife refuge in that state.

Floyd Mori, national director of the JACL, has traveled to the area and agrees that there is more recovery work needed in the Gulf Coast.

“The Asian American people of the Gulf Coast have had minimal relief from the BP oil spill,” Mori said. “The claims process has been jammed up with more requests than solutions. There is a question of the fairness of the process of forcing fishermen to choose prematurely to a partially known loss amount.”

BP has paid out over $4.8 billion in payments to individuals and businesses for claims as of June 23. That total includes over $395 million of claims paid by BP to individuals and business prior to Aug. 23.

For her losses, Hall was compensated about $40,000 last year. Her deckhands received additional compensation. But Hall says the compensation she received also covered equipment purchases and mechanical repairs to her boat. This year Hall says she has been uncompensated by BP.

“Nobody gets anything right now. After the new year we never got a dime,” she said. “We don’t have any money to put in our pockets or the bank. All we have is enough to pay our bills.”

The future of the fishing industry might be unstable in the Gulf Coast, but Hall’s optimism is brightened by the day’s good weather and the promise of a hefty mackerel catch.

“The wind is blowing and the waves are kind of big. But the sunshine is pretty,” Hall said shortly after anchoring her boat. “I hope we can find more crab and they don’t die easily and that’s it. If BP doesn’t help us, we don’t mind it. As long as we can find crab, we can find a buyer.”