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Shrimpers’ Cultural Clash Adds to Mounting Woes

May 13, 1990

NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ A recent gunbattle between Louisiana and Vietnamese shrimpers over choice fishing waters has brought to the surface the tension each side feels in these lean times for the industry.

Increased regulation, dwindling resources, rising costs and foreign competition, coupled with language barriers and misunderstood cultural customs, provide more than enough fuel to ignite an already heated situation in the Gulf of Mexico waters, people on both sides say.

″It’s tough for the guys out there,″ said Lt. Col. Charles Clark of the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Department. ″People are struggling to survive and it’s not ethnic background, it’s who’s catching the shrimp that divides people.″

″I don’t think it’s discrimination against the Vietnamese fishermen,″ said Monsignor Dominic Luong, pastor of Mary Queen of Vietnam Church. ″I think it is a human thing. You have the Vietnamese fighting to achieve on the economic scale and you have the other fishermen trying to do the same thing. The Vietnamese do keep the rules, but sometimes they don’t understand the American rules. In that situation, tempers flare.″

A federal grand jury is expected to look into the May 5 incident in which longtime local fishermen and Vietnamese immigrants exchanged gunfire and rammed each others’ boats. The Coast Guard officials intervened and briefly confiscated six shrimp boats. No one was injured in the confrontation.

For the Vietnamese, who have struggled up from poverty, owning their own boats is a step up. But for Louisiana shrimpers, a way of life is rapidly crumbling.

The costs of shrimping, including fuel, nets and insurance, have skyrocketed, said Capt. Sandy Dares of Wildlife and Fisheries. Meanwhile, shrimpers are coming off several bad years and a winter freeze that kept them landlocked for an extended period this year.

Shrimpers are particularly bitter over the federal laws that require they use Turtle Excluder Devices. The TEDs allow the endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle to escape from their nets, but shrimpers say the turtle isn’t caught in Louisiana waters and the TEDs let half of their catch escape.

″They just can’t make any money. So how do they pay for the boat and feed their families?″ Dares asked. ″Then you’ve got more regulations showing up every day. Not just the TEDs, but lots of things, like what they have to have on their boats and how they can dispose of their waste oil.″

″I just can’t afford it,″ said Mark Buras, 37, of Port Sulphur. ″You never did get rich shrimping. One year would be good, one year bad, one year you’d break even. With the TEDs they’ll all be bad. It’s like having a big hole in the middle of the net.″

Many U.S. native shrimpers believe the Vietnamese aren’t using the TEDs, according to Donald Lirette of Dulac, president of the Terrebonne Fishermen’s Organization.

Clark dismisses such talk, as well as shrimpers’ charges that the Vietnamese have bigger boats and use them to drive other shrimpers away from schools of shrimp when they’re found.

″I don’t think they have bigger boats. If you look at it there’s a lot of equal opportunity out there,″ Clark said. ″When the shrimp are found it’s everyone for himself. But to tell the truth, when the Vietnamese find shrimp, they’re going for it. They’re much more interested in harvesting the resource than in human compassion.″

The language barrier is also blamed for many problems. At sea, shrimpers communicate by radio or shouting at one other.

″The Vietnamese only learn the American words for ‘we found some shrimp,’ said Lirette. ″They monitor the radio and when they hear that they head there. That doesn’t make the guy who found the shrimp and told his buddy happy.″

″In Louisiana, shrimpers never moved that much,″ Clark said. ″They shrimped their own area and that was it. ... The Vietnamese are very migrant, on the other hand. They go anywhere they hear the shrimp are. I don’t think they’ve grasped our sense of fair play, and some of the shrimpers probably hold it against them.″

Foreign shrimp imports add to the problem, Dares said. About 80 percent of the shrimp consumed in the United States is imported, and, he said, it’s cheaper than what Louisiana shrimpers produce.

″No matter what we do they can grow shrimp cheaper than we can catch them,″ said Kevin Pennison of Houma.

The economic squeeze for both groups is acute, and for both the alternatives to shrimping are narrow now, with the state’s economy shrunken because of oil industry problems.

″What happened was most Vietnamese came here and had no time to learn English or develop skills,″ Luong said. ″They had to go right into the labor market to support their families. For them, owning their own business or boat is achieving on the economic scale. They have moved up.″

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