WESTSIDE COVER STORY : Net Losses : Vietnamese immigrant fishermen who ply local waters face such problems as a language barrier, dilapidated boats and complicated regulations.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They should be at sea. After weeks of hard rain and pounding offshore breakers, the sky on this February day is almost painfully bright-blue, the ocean lapping quietly, as if exhausted by the storms. The Vietnamese fishermen should be fishing.

Instead, they squat in small groups on moored vessels, many of them barefoot and wringing their work-gnarled hands, and they wait . . . for an explanation. An answer. An end to the confusion.

The previous weekend, three of the tight-knit group had their trawl nets confiscated by the state Department of Fish and Game for allegedly fishing in closed areas of Santa Monica Bay and Orange County. Their captains swear they did nothing wrong. With the language barrier, the often-complicated fishing regulations and the rumors, each fears the same fate if he sails.

And so they wait.

For the dozen or so Vietnamese fishermen who moor their mostly dilapidated vessels at the southernmost dock of San Pedro's Fish Harbor, this is merely the latest obstacle in their daily, and nightly, struggle to pull halibut, sculpin and a meager living from an adopted sea.

It is a struggle of cultures, of economics, of ancient tradition versus modern regulation. It is a struggle that has claimed four lives in the past year, all lost when a boat sank mysteriously near Catalina Island. Three other vessels have also sunk. And now three boats have lost their precious nets.

Wardens took Ngoc Truong's net, winch and other equipment worth some $5,000. Department of Fish and Game officials said Truong, like the others now netless, was harvesting fish in waters off limits to commercial fishermen. He will have his day in court, but Truong worries about what he will do for money in the meantime.

Taking his net, he says, is like taking his leg.

And when the 37-year-old learns there will be no work on his friend's boat today either, because the friend fears leaving the harbor, Truong drops his head into his hands to hide his emotions.

"I really need to go out today," he says quietly. "I need to pay rent."

On a good day, these vessels will return with a catch worth $500 to $700. But the money is divided among three or four deckhands. About $200 of it goes for diesel fuel. Then there is the ice and food to buy and the constant expenses for upkeep.

"It's very expensive to go out and not catch anything," says Jerry Spansail, patrol captain for the state Department of Fish and Game in Los Angeles and Orange Counties. Sometimes a fish-rich but off-limits area like Santa Monica Bay can be difficult to resist. "It's tempting to go to that fishpond," he said.

The Vietnamese fishing fleet is tucked away at the end of a row of gigantic metal fish crates stacked four high, past the Heinz food processing plant and across from the Terminal Island Correctional Facility. For the most part, the boats lashed here are considerably older than the neighboring American-owned vessels. And they sport names like the Saigon I, Than Phat, Van Slee, remembrances of a war-ravaged homeland their owners had fled 10 or 20 years ago.

Truong's story is typical. He left his native country in 1975--the year South Vietnam fell to the communists--when he was 17. He spent the next two years in refugee camps in Indonesia (others went to Malaysia, the Philippines and other way-station countries) before arriving in the United States with his parents and eight siblings. After drifting from odd job to odd job, fishermen friends encouraged Truong to join them. He peddled ice cream for three years to raise the down payment for the William Truong--named for his 9-year-old son.

A life at sea, less romantic than grueling, has been especially trying for the Vietnamese fishermen. Many of them began casting lines and nets with their fathers and grandfathers on the South China Sea, where they could fish where and how they wanted and fill a boat with all it could hold.

Few speak fluent English, even after a decade or more here. Many support extended families; some send money to relatives still in Vietnam. And, while many of their American counterparts are from families that have been in the local seagoing business for generations--acquiring vessels and nets and knowledge--the Vietnamese have had to start from scratch.

"Work, work, work, work and work," says Tien Van Nguyen, 31, as he repairs the engine of the Pico II.

Work all night, when the fishing is best. Work for days and weeks on end. Lay nets, bait hooks, heft snapper and sculpin and sea cucumbers into the boat's icy hold.

"The Vietnamese fishing fleet here in Los Angeles is an extremely hard-working group of people," says Steve Denning, a civilian who is the officer in charge at Coast Guard Station Los Angeles.

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One of the most difficult and time-consuming tasks the community faces each day is simply keeping the boats afloat.

With a couple of exceptions, the Vietnamese vessels are decades old and require continual repairs. Many of the fishermen stay on the cramped vessels several nights a week instead of driving to their homes in Los Angeles or Santa Ana or San Bernardino, rising early to make repairs before they sail.

Most purchased their boats for about $20,000--the American-owned trawlers nearby cost three, four or five times that. Their helms are worn smooth by use, and the colors of previous paint jobs appear where the latest coat has chipped away. Most of the boats are made of wood--wood that has been soaking in seawater for a generation or more.

Nguyen figures that is probably why a friend's boat went down in January, and the friend had to be plucked from the sea.

"Wood too old," Nguyen says.

Nguyen's boat, the Pico II, is also too old, he says, "but we don't have too much money to buy new one. They cost $100,000."

The Coast Guard does not track distress calls based on the nationality of the boats' owners, but the group at Fish Harbor says four of their vessels have sunk in the last year, with rotting timbers suspected in each case. One of those boats, the Tammy, took four of their friends down with it in July, near Catalina Island.

No one had any indication of the accident until another fishing vessel spotted debris and two bodies floating in the water.

The Tammy lacked a required signaling device known as an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon.

Because there are very few regulations regarding small vessels, the decision to sail or not to sail is left up to the owners. Most of them are subsistence-level fishermen who, some officials say, take unusually high risks in an effort to eke out a living.

The Coast Guard's Denning says his agency can do little to keep a potentially risky boat from sailing.

"We have to balance the safety with their right to make a living," he says. "We think of these boats as their floating stores."

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While the Vietnamese have garnered a reputation as exceptionally hard workers, they also have become known for keeping to themselves--and for taking care of their own.

At this dock, each man shares his expertise with the others. The owner of one vessel welds the net spool on a friend's boat while several other men help Nguyen delve into his faltering engine. Those who speak the best English translate intricate rules.

The group fishes the same way, often sailing en masse, all boats tuned to the same radio frequency. If one vessel has engine problems, another will tow it back to port. When one comes upon a burgeoning shrimp bed or school of rock cod, the radio crackles with directions for the others.

The Tammy was sailing alone, however, when it went down. After the two bodies were found, Giang Ta, 22, who with brothers Tuan, 20, and Khanh, 26, sails the Bright Star, laid his net in the area hoping to recover the other two bodies. He found the wallet of one of the men, but returned it to the sea.

"It wasn't mine," Giang Ta said. "It was his."

Joe Dow, a third-generation American fisherman and urchin diver, says the Vietnamese fishermen's sense of community is a welcome change in the competitive world of commercial fishing.

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Some of the Vietnamese attribute the recent spate of problems--several more nets have been confiscated in recent weeks--to what they call confusing regulations.

Officials, on the other hand, while acknowledging that the rules have become increasingly complicated in recent years, say the tenuous, day-to-day nature of the business can lead some fishermen to knowingly fish illegally.

But straying into forbidden waters for tempting catches is not unique to Vietnamese fishermen, everyone agrees, and they are not the only ones to be cited.

By midafternoon on the recent sunlit day, the Vietnamese are the only fishermen left in the harbor. The William Truong, the Bright Star and the Jennifer T float uselessly alongside the dock, stripped of their gear. And the nervous captains of the eight or nine other boats have spent the day debating whether their own nets will be confiscated if they sail.

The weeks of poor weather, however, have left many of them financially desperate. And by the time the daylight ebbs with the tide, rumors and warnings still jumping from one vessel to the next, the first of the Vietnamese boats slips out to sea.

"He has to go," one fisherman explains. "He has four children."

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