Oil spill takes toll on Cambodian, Vietnamese fishermen


About 2,000 Cambodian and Vietnamese immigrants in this remote bayou community — mostly families that have staked their American livelihoods on shrimping and fishing — have found themselves isolated by more than just vast stretches of swampland since the gulf oil spill disaster.

Language barriers have made it even more difficult for them to be plugged into the latest information about temporary jobs offered by BP after thousands of fishermen like themselves have been put out of work by the oil spill.

About 200 of them gathered Thursday in a sweltering bayou restaurant, trying to contain their frustrations as a BP representative, flanked by interpreters, urged them to enroll in the company’s paid cleanup programs.

The programs were designed to help create a line of defense along the nation’s richest fishing grounds and to provide some income to grounded fishermen.

But BP spokesman David Kinnaird offered little in the way of immediate help. He said that the company had hired enough workers for the time being but that the fishermen could get on the waiting list.

The fishermen said they were more concerned with what BP could do to remedy their immediate cash flow problems after fishing was banned on Sunday for at least 10 days. Federal waters from the mouth of the Mississippi River to Pensacola, Fla., are off-limits.

“We need money to pay bills and buy food,” said Benjamin Truongo, 48, who has been plying local marshes for two decades.

Kinnaird said BP planned to set up a claims office in nearby Venice, La. “If the claims are legitimate and can be properly documented, they will be paid promptly,” he said.

Meanwhile, BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said at a news conference Thursday that the company would pay claims regardless of a $75-million cap established by federal law. He said checks had already gone out.

As in many other Gulf Coast fishing communities, Buras’ marinas were filled with docked boats while its residents’ livelihoods were in limbo.

“Many of these people do not speak English, so they don’t understand what kind of assistance is available, and they are scared,” said Billy Nungesser, Plaquemines Parish president. “Just the other day, a 94-year-old fisherman, who has his wits about him and looks forward to taking his vessel into the marsh each day, said, ‘Mr. Billy. Please help. What do I do?’ I didn’t know what to tell him.”

The meeting was organized by local officials and Miami attorney Spencer Aronfeld to allow BP officials to answer concerns from people such as Chuck Nguyen, 35.

“I haven’t worked in four months because the oil spill hit at about the same time as the start of the new fishing season, which runs from May through December,” he said. “I borrowed a few thousand dollars from a relative who was only a little better off than me.”

But what Nguyen and other fishermen heard from Kinnaird and a representative from United Way was that they would have to be patient.

They were also told that applications for the cleanup programs would be translated into Cambodian and Vietnamese.

Kinnaird said BP had already signed up about 700 boat owners in Louisiana and Mississippi to scoop crude out of fouled waters and deploy booms. “We’ll let you know if we need more later,” he said.

“These people got nothing but words and empty promises,” Aronfeld said.

In the meantime, shrimp boat captain Hung T. Le, 48, kills time, wondering when he will be able to take his 40-foot vessel, Southern Lady, back into the marsh.

“She’s so sad just sitting there with an empty shrimp box. I can’t wait for work much longer.”