The museum curators face crinkles when I ask why there isn’t any information in the museum about the Vietnamese population and their impact on the shrimping community in Biloxi, Mississippi. “They came over here and took over our seafood industry; put all our locals out of work with their big boats that the government gave them,” the woman working the front desk of the Maritime and Seafood Museum said about the Vietnamese immigrants.
Biloxi is a small town nestled next to the Gulf and littered with vacant lots full of the ghosts of houses past. These concrete slabs with front door steps leading to nowhere are what’s left after Katrina--thirteen years later. Katrina destroyed many ship captains’ boats. There are a few commercial boat docks in Biloxi but the two largest are the large vessel dock and the small vessel dock, both of which are nestled next to large casinos.
“The only reason we have casinos is because the economy was so bad and the state was desperate and approved it, said Defense attorney Robert Koons, a local of the area. “You can only have them in certain places; you could only have them above a body of water before Katrina. Katrina happened and now the casinos can be within 800 feet of the shoreline.”
The seafood industry is beginning to pick up after Katrina and the infamous Deepwater Horizon oil spill where about 172 million gallons of Louisiana crude oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico waters, but only the best have survived in the local shrimping race. Most of the Vietnamese community came to the United States and specifically Biloxi, Mississippi in the 1970s when the North took over the South and the communist regime dominated. “We started shrimping because we already knew how to do that,” said Tom a second-generation Vietnamese migrant working in a Pho shop in Biloxi. “We are just good at it,” he said.
Lawyer Koon: “It took awhile. You know, they didn’t understand us we didn’t understand them, and the government bought them all their shrimp boats. They were very territorial and there were fights out there on the water with guns, with the white shrimpers fighting the Vietnamese shrimpers out there. It doesn’t happen anymore.”
Most of the Vietnamese shrimpers have boats in the small vessel harbor, where they sell their shrimp right from the boat. A lot of fishing boat captains we spoke with seemed to make the switch from local commercial shrimping to charter fishing boats after Katrina, leaving the Vietnamese to dominate commercial shrimping today.
Some Vietnamese shrimping boats survived Katrina but many did not, and the Gulf shrimp industry is still struggling.
“My husband is a captain and was a captain before the storm, but a lot of his friends work in local Vietnamese restaurants or have been doing construction since the storm,” said a woman employed at a marine repair shop, “Many people have chosen jobs off the water after the storm because of the price of paying for a new boat.”
Shrimping was already hard enough because of cheap shrimp from overseas and high fuel prices. Then the hurricane damaged or destroyed more than half the region's commercial fishing boats, according to Mississippi fisheries expert Corky Perret. Now the former shrimpers work in casinos that sell artificial hope.