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Missed Dredging Season Leaves Oystermen Struggling to Make Ends Meet

By Rhonda Miller | Published 01 Apr 2011 01:01pm | comments
Oystermen Shelton Robertson, Jr. and Justin Woodman from Bayou La Batre, Alabama come in from tonging oysters at Pass Christian.

Fishermen who make a living dredging for oysters off the Mississippi Gulf Coast are having trouble keeping food on the table. Dredging has been shut down for an entire season. Many fishermen blame the lost season on the BP oil spill.

On the dock at Pass Christian, three men tie up their small boat and put down their oyster tongs - 14-foot-long wooden poles with a steel, rake-like scoop on the end. Shelton Robertson, Jr. and his friends came 60 miles from Bayou La Batre, Alabama.

"We drive down here every day. 'Cuz there’s no oysters in Alabama right now. Yeah, because they won’t let us dredge right now. All the dredging grounds are dead. There’s nothing on it," Robertson said. "We get our limit every day, 10 sacks."

He said it's enough to make it worth driving. They get paid $30 a sack.

Down the dock at Shaggy’s Bar & Grill, Anthony Hormanski is shucking oysters for the restaurant. Hormanski didn’t catch these. He’s a tonger and already caught his limit for the day. He knows the waters.

"In April when we shut the reef down we's catching plenty of oysters all the way ‘til the end. And then we had the oil blowout. Nov. 8 when we opened it up we couldn’t find that many oysters ," Hormanski said. "I aint’ sayin’ the BP oil situation is the problem. I mean, it’s like it happened overnight. I don’t know what the problem is. I know the oysters ain't there. I know what I see."

Whatever the problem is, oystermen who dredge are having a season without work.

Phi Nguyen is upset enough to talk about her troubles through a translator at a community center in Biloxi recently. Nguyen used to work in a nail salon, but gave that up to help her husband in his fishing business.

"He’s an oysterman, but the oyster beds are closed and he can’t do his trade," she said.

The state closed the oyster beds after the BP oil spill in April. That’s when oyster season usually closes anyway, because the water warms up. In 2010, oyster season didn’t re-open as it usually does in the Fall. Nguyen and her husband can’t tong for oysters because it’s in shallow water and their boat is too big. Now, they have no oysters and no money.

In the past six months they hasn’t been able to get any of the Gulf Coast claims payments, the emergency payment or the interim payment and it’s caused financial hardship.

They applied for food stamps for the past three months and as far as the bills, they get some money from their daughter. And they kind of have to go around and ask relatives and family members to contribute.

Nguyen and her family are far from alone in facing the hardships affecting those who make a living dredging oysters.

"We certainly empathize with the oyster fishermen, particularly this year. We’ve had an off season. We don’t have the amount and the numbers of oysters out there that we typically have out there," said Joe Jewell, Deputy Director of the Office of Marine Fisheries in the State Department of Marine Resources.

Jewell said the combination of unusually warm water last summer, a large number of oysters dying and on-going evaluation of Gulf waters were among the reasons the state shut-down oyster dredging during the past season.

"For the fishermen that typically work for a living out there, it was unfortunate that they were not able to capture the amount of money and resources they typically do out there," Jewell said.

Thao Vu works with the Vietnamese community in her job with Mercy Housing and Human Development in Gulfport. She’s also a member of the Vietnamese American Fisherfolk and Families. Vu says the language barrier has made the Vietnamese community especially hard hit.

"And you know, since the oil disaster, no one I know working with the Vietnamese community, that dredges oysters, has been able to dredge one single sack of oysters, " Vu said.

And while the day-to-day struggle to pay rent, utilities, food and gas is pressing for these families, Vu says Vietnamese families are even more worried about a way of life, when many of them have no other skills to earn a living.

"They’re saying that for the next several years it’s a huge impact and they don’t think it will recover any time soon," Vu said.

The state has projects underway to replenish the oyster beds. But it takes two-to-three years for oysters to grow to legal size of three inches. The next oyster dredging season begins in October. Until then, or perhaps even after that, those who earn a living dredging oysters, have to figure out some other way to pay the bills.

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Oystermen Shelton Robertson, Jr. and Justin Woodman from Bayou La Batre, Alabama come in from tonging oysters at Pass Christian.


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