Boats moored by the BP oil spill, a long-threatened community of black fishers fears for its future

Headed down La. 39 on the east bank of Plaquemines Parish, a few miles down after the Belle Chasse Ferry, drivers pass a tall, white picket fence on the left with a sign that reads “Welcome White Ditch” in a circle around an outline of the state  with a pelican inside. A few yards ahead, to the right are two rusting red pipes connected to the Mississippi River which dip below the highway and then surface on the left to flush river water into a fenced-off canal that leads to acres of marsh and bayou.

This is the White’s Ditch Siphon. But to some in the area, it is a division marker. From this point south are  predominantly African-American communities such as Phoenix, Davant and Pointe a la Hache. The communities north of this mark are mostly white.

But also what lies south of this point are communities that for decades kept themselves alive through oyster harvesting and shrimp trawling. The history of this small, historically black community of fishermen and women stretches back to the early 20th century. That legacy continues today, though somewhat diluted over the past 40 years as some younger residents traded a living on the water for jobs in the energy industry. What’s left of that proud maritime heritage, though, is being threatened by the catastrophic BP oil disaster, which could choke the life out of the bays and shores on which the communities depend.

Ironically, one approach to keeping the oil away could itself finish off the black fishing community here.

State officials have opened Mississippi River diversions, such as the White’s Ditch Siphon, hoping that a strong outward flow of water will keep the oil out of the bayou and marsh where it could persist for decades, and ruin the already brittle wetlands . But emptying that much fresh water into the oyster beds throws off the delicate salinity balance the bivalves need to survive.

When the White’s Ditch Siphon was installed in 1963, it destroyed most of the oyster beds owned by African Americans, said Byron Encalade, president of the Louisiana Oysterman Association. Encalade says he had close to 1,500 acres of oyster beds before the White Ditch intrusion and now has about 200 acres. At peak, blacks owned almost 10,000 acres collectively, but now maybe 1,500, he said.

The state might open another diversion in the Bohemia Spillway, a couple of miles south of White’s Ditch. If reopened now, it would throw another flow of freshwater into the brackish habitat Encalade’s oystermen depend on. That will hurt, says Neal Beshel, who runs the marina office at Point a la Hache. “You need a little fresh water introduced out there, but if you get too much out there it’ll hurt the oysters,” he said. “I’m against it.”

Encalade was more direct: “That will wipe us out.Our community will not have any black-owned oyster leases left. It will finish us off.”

Despite this threat to their livelihoods, African Americans here say they are being overlooked by BP as the oil giant looks to hire locals for cleanup work.

At the Pointe a la Hache boat harbor, behind the marina’s office, five African-American men gather over a pile of crabs, picking them up, sizing them and tossing them in boxes.  All of them attended the BP “Vessels of Opportunity” job training held in their community, but none of them got work from it. One of them, Orin Bentley, sweating profusely under a straw hat and pulling crabs with thick hands scarred like hacked wood, said they likely won’t either.

“They ain’t calling us back,” Bentley said. “They ain’t hiring nobody from East Bank. We losing everything – losing our business, losing our money and losing our minds.”

There are no hard numbers on the demographics of the people hired by BP. A look at the legal form for participants in Vessels of Opportunity program shows inquiries into the make, model, vessel capacity, and fuel capacity of the boat being used, but no questions about the  race, gender or even date of birth of the trainee. Patrick Kelley, a data collector for the U.S. Coast Guard, said that while the petrochemical giant has no other method to track those employed, they have developed an informal approach to demographics: checking the spelling of the names on the agreements. Using that method, he estimates that about 200 Vietnamese or Cambodian fishers have gotten jobs, about a third of a total of about 600 hires, he said. This number represents less than18 percent of the total 3,200 people who have attended trainings and received certification to work in the cleanup.

Activists and advocates  say that without this information, government has no way of ensuring that BP is hiring fairly. Last week, Rev. Tyrone Edwards, an African-American activist out of Phoenix, a small black town near Pointe a La Hache, brought that message to Capitol Hill. Traveling with the Equity and Inclusion Campaign and Oxfam America, Edwards met with California Democrat Congresswoman Maxine Waters about making sure that blacks and other minorities are not left out of cleanup employment opportunities. Waters is expected to hold hearings about this issue this week.

“We know who’s been absent from the table was black fishermen,” Edwards said. “Not only were the black ones not there, but you had all the guys owning large vessels, and the large vendors who were at the table. So I said we’ve got to be more involved in this process. Right now BP needs to be saying, ‘We are paying you this money because your water bottoms are closed.’ They have the responsibility to pay us while we are not working, especially the fishermen on the east bank”

Rev. Edwards isn’t himself a fisher, but has a long history of advocating on their behalf, dating back to 1979 when he helped form The Fishermen and Concerned Citizens of Plaquemines Parish. He led that organization in a successful fight to overturn a law banning the use of a small hand dredges, often used by small commercial black fishers. They also fought for better wages and better work protection for black crewmembers, while also helping black fishers with boat ownership.

These days, Rev. Edwards heads the Zion Travelers Cooperative Center, which has led post-Katrina rebuilding efforts in southeast Plaquemines — much of which was flattened by storm surges. He’s also been working with Plaquemines Parish president Billy Nungesser on a plan to have BP come accommodate some of the overlooked fishers. Nungesser says that so far BP has agreed to set up a place on the east bank where fishers can receive assistance with the claims process or sign up for hazardous materials clean-up training if needed.

It will be a “place where I can put some of my people there becasue I think [BP is] bullshitting them,” said Nungesser. “They are not helping them express their true losses. Some of those fisherman in east bank aren’t educated and some are intimidated but they are hardworking people. So we need something so that when they come in it won’t feel like them against BP.”

One local person who’s future is in jeopardy is a man who doesn’t fish himself, but has been making a living off selling large Gulf shrimp off the back of his truck in New Orleans. Keilen Williams, the 34-year-old “New Orleans Shrimp Man”, comes from four generations of oystermen and shrimpers. He once shrimped, but now calls himself an “advocate for shrimpers,” much in the way that Encalade is an advocate for oystermen.

“I’m connected to so many fishers that I didn’t have to fish no more,” Williams said. “They need a voice. They needed me to get this together, this black representation for them because we feel like we are losing our heritage.”

Williams has been writing to city council members and talking with local media, such as WBOK morning show host Gerod Stevens, about how black fishers in southeast Plaquemines have not received the protection and assistance other communities have.  This is important to New Orleanians in particular because much of the oysters and shrimp they eat at restaurants come from black fishers in Pointe a La Hache.

Every day, the Pointe a la Hache marina is paid a visit by Rodney Fox, owner of R&A Oyster Co., who collects thousands of coffebean sacks of oysters – each containing 100 to 150 oysters in them – from black, and increasingly Mexican, oystermen. Fox purchases them for about $25 a sack, and then sells them to restaurants and markets throughout the state and country.

Williams is trying to duplicate the same success in New Orleans. When not advocating, Williams is working to establish a fresh seafood and vegetable market in the city. There, he would sell shrimp, oysters and fish at low prices thanks to his relationships with the black fishers in Plaquemines. Already, he’s registered with the state as “New Orleans Shrimpman LLC” and pursued grants from the city to help get the business off the ground.

All of that is put on hold now, though, due to the oil spill.

“Consumers will be skeptical about buying shrimp now,” Williams said. “They opened shrimp season early, when they weren’t the size they were supposed to be yet.”

In previous years, Williams was able to earn about $100,000 a year selling shrimp from Pointe a la Hache in New Orleans, tax returns show. He was hoping this year to ink contracts with big-time suppliers such as Costco and Wal-Mart. That would have tripled his income, he says, but instead it feels more like a distant dream with every passing day of oil and riverwater seeping into the marsh and boats remaining tied up.

“This is all I know, water and seafood,” Williams said. “It feels like I’m losing my heritage. If I don’t do this — black people already have been stripped of their identity. This will finish us.”

photos by Shawn Escoffery

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  • St. Roch La Tour

    would someone please explain to me why the word black when used to describe a person’s race is not capitalized in the united states? it is in the united kingdom? the word white when used to describe a person’s race is always capitalized. very odd.

  • Ariella Cohen

    In the words of Aly Colón at Poynter online:

    When I spoke to John McIntyre, ACES president and head of the copy desk at The Baltimore Sun, he said he consulted two standard references: the Merriam-Webster dictionary and the New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. He explained that the term “black” has been an ethnic identifier since the 18th century. It became the preferred term in the 1960s and 1970s.

    Why lowercase “b'”? First, he said, because it’s always been lowercase and tradition plays an important part in language usage.

    “Newspapers … don’t impose language, they follow the language,” McIntyre said. “The terms ‘black’ and ‘white’ with lowercase have a long history,” he said, noting it’s not a wise idea to veer away from what readers use. “It’s very difficult to alter traditional uses. It’s been 20 years we’ve been encouraged to use ‘African American’ instead of ‘black.’ And it’s still not a settled usage.”

    for more perspective go to: http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?

  • St. Roch La Tour

    thank you. the words are capitalized in the united kingdom. typically, i see white capitalized here. i appreciate fully the history of the term black as an ethnic identifier, having lived through the ’60s and the ’70s. i do think, that if it is going to be used today, it should be capitalized. when it comes to race, tradition is not necessarily the best control.

  • Thanks St. Roch. Actually “black” is a racial identifier, not an ethnic identifier, and sometimes the two can be conflated. We, meaning the press, actually do capitalize for ethnicity (African American, Indian American, Jamaican American, etc.) but not for race. And also, I’m not sure that it’s universal that race is capitalized in the United Kingdom either. The Guardian does not capitalize black or white when identifying race, at least not on its online version. The Black Press in the U.S. however does capitalize black and white for race.

  • Reilly

    excellent story, thanks for putting it out

  • Petra

    Great reporting, thanks for this story!

  • Gary Salathe

    I have fished the Point A la Hatche area for years and went down there one last yesterday, anticipating that the oil spill will eventually make its way into the bays that I fish. The combination of the Caernarvon Diversion siphon being opened early this year, and being left fully open this late into the spring, and the White’s Ditch diversion siphon being open, has really changed the water in the bays out from the Pointe A la Hatche Marina from salt water to brackish water, as you report.

    There are underwater fresh water grasses growing in many bays along the edge of Black Bay that I have never see grass growing in before. A small oyster dredger boat pulled out of the water before me when I returned to the launch yesterday. He had grass stuck all over his oyster rake.

    Although redfish and speckle trout move into the brackish water areas in the fall and winter they generally move out of these marshes in late May and the middle of June to find saltier water in the further out bays where they mate. I believed the speckle trout moved out much earlier this year because the salinity level of the water was so low is in the inside marshes because of the diversions being opened.

    As I was leaving the Pointe A la Hatche marina yesterday afternoon I stepped into the little store at the Beshel’s launch and saw the usual cast of local characters talking, like those mentioned in your article. I am a white person, but have always felt welcome by the African American people in the marina and the local customers of Beshel’s launch who use the store as a hang-out. Typically, by 3 PM in the afternoon, the group would be laughing it up telling stories and jokes about local goings ons, but yesterday the group was small and subdued. There were two Louisiana Wildlife and Fishery agents in the store telling stories of how they chased down oil soak pelicans the day before, which didn’t do anything to lighten up the mood of the group.

    I did not catch many fish yesterday and saw little sign that there were even many fish in the area. I have made a decision not to fish the area in the spring and summer anymore because of the water change to fresh/brackish. I’ll start back up in the fall when the speckle trout begin their migration into the back marshes.

    I understand that the goal of introducing fresh water into the coastal marshes is important to saving the wetlands. I’m sure one hundred fifty years ago when there were no levees on the Mississippi River there was very little salt water in the marshes near Pointe A la Hatche. I’m also sure that during modern times, before the siphons were built, that there was little fresh water entering the area marshes because the Mississippi spring floods had been controlled by the levees. The increased salinity of the water during this period allowed the African American oystermen in the Pointe A la Hatche area to prosper.

    I saw very few sacks of oysters sitting on the dock yesterday ready to be loaded. I fear that the African American oystermen south of White’s Ditch may need to find other ways to make a living because the decision to introduce fresh water back into those marshes is not only being confirmed during this crisis over the oil spill, but will very likely be irreversible because of the momentum building to save the marshes with even more Mississippi diversion siphons.