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Vietnamese American shrimpers fear spill's toll

Gulf Oil Spill

The Gulf oil spill is throwing an intense light on the fishing and shrimping culture in Southeast Louisiana, but within that population who live off the sea are ethnic cultures as well.  One of those is the Vietnamese culture.  Along the Gulf Coast states, thousands of Vietnamese Americans make their living from shrimping and their have always been intertwined with the water.

Phung Pham, 55, has been shrimping for 23 years.  He used to fish and shrimp in his hometown in Nha Trang in Vietnam.  After fleeing the communist regime he settled in Gretna, La.  We met him about an hour south on his shrimp boat in Port Sulphur.

"This is all I've ever known, shrimping.  At my age I don't have choice," said Pham.

VIDEO: Rough seas for Vietnamese shrimpers

He says he doesn't have a choice because he never went to school.  For more than 20 years he's been shrimping to give his three children the opportunities he never had.  One of kids has graduated college; he has to get on his boat each shrimping season to make sure the two others graduate as well.

"I've worked all my life and I'll keep doing so to make sure they get what they need," Pham said in his native Vietnamese. 

This shrimping season is different though.The massive oil leak off the shores of Louisiana is threatening this year's harvest and the livelihoods of the many people who rely on catching seafood.

'It could ruin us'
"Of course I'm scared, this could make us all wait to work, it could ruin us says," Pham. There's concern, but Pham has a sense he'll be able to cope with whatever comes.  It's emblematic of many Vietnamese Americans.  That resilience was forged many years before when thousands of refugees came to the Gulf Coast looking to work.

"When we first came here fishing did not require English. You don't need to speak English to fish, so it was easier for us to get into.  It really was the foundation for our communities in New Orleans and Louisiana," said Pastor Vien Nguyen of the Mary Queen of Vietnam Church in New Orleans East.

The language barriers and at times a lack of understanding the local rules of fishing caused conflicts.  Many native shrimpers and fishermen complained the Vietnamese overfished, and that lead to some clashes.

"Some people got killed, I know three or four people in Galveston that got killed.  The Vietnamese just didn't know what the rules were," said long-time shrimper Russell LeBoeuf.

'We will prevail again'
Through years of assimilation the tensions have eased and more than 20,000 Vietnamese immigrants now call the New Orleans East and the West Bank home.  There you'll find the old flag of South Vietnam flying with Old Glory.  It's a reminder of the challenges the Vietnamese have overcome.  They were reminded of their trials when Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans East in 2005.  They now are tapping into their reserve of resilience as so many shrimpers in their community brace for a slow-moving disaster that could change their way of life. 

"The community has gone through a lot and yet we have found that thus far we have prevailed always and so my prediction is that it will happen again that we will prevail again," said Pastor Vien.