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Gulf Coast Oil Spill: Beyond the Economic Loss

On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf Coast caused 4.9 million barrels of crude oil to spill into the Coastal waters from Texas through Florida. BP’s oil continued to hemorrhage into the ocean for the subsequent 87 days. Waters remained closed and the fishing season of 2010 never opened.  In the end, the explosion eradicated the short-term fishing industry along the Coast, devastated its oyster industry, and destabilized the ecologic balance of Coastal fishing waters.  A less-publicized and, as yet, wholly uncompensated result of the oil spill was the accelerated erosion of an honorable culture.   

Vietnamese and other Asian immigrants comprise approximately 30 % of the population of Bayou La Batre, Alabama, a small fishing town located 40 miles south of Mobile. Since their emigration after the Fall of Saigon, Vietnamese immigrants built new lives within the confines of American law while preserving intact cultural values and practices from their country of origin. Together, they shrimped, shucked oysters and trapped crab. Over the years, their adherence to communal networking, the multi-generational family, and camaraderie in seafooding had not diminished despite bigotry, westernization or Hurricane Katrina.     

The town and its people were identified and inextricably connected by the chain of distribution in the seafood industry. As such, the sudden loss of this industry was a violent assault on the identity of the Vietnamese fishermen. As of April 21, 2010, they had no place to go and they had nothing to do.  This lack of purpose and income would erode their communal interdependence, independence from government subsidies, and personal pride. 

Destruction caused by the spill was complete in that everyone’s income was dependent upon the waters and no one could fish. Further intensifying the gravity of the situation was the timing of the spill. It occurred when the fishing industry was scheduled to start and most people had depleted the prior year’s reserve of savings and seafood. They could not look to each other for financial or nutritional support, as was the custom, because everyone was impoverished by this catastrophe. Those who reached out to neighbors for help made requests only from desperation and with shame. Many had to refuse assistance to neighbors who had helped them in the past. They, too, felt palpable shame.