The U.S. commercial fishing industry is on an upward swing with fish consumption continuing to increase. Fishermen caught 9.9 billion pounds of fish and shellfish in 2017 while the U.S. imported 5.9 billion pounds of seafood, up 1.6 percent, according to the annual Fisheries of the United States report.
Missing from this equation is information on the legacy of African Americans in the industry. Black people have long been part of the fishing sector, especially in the Gulf coast — Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida.
Here are 20 things to know about the history of Black Americans in the fishing industry.
There are various organizations that target Black people who fish for recreation, as a way of life or for a living.
Brown Folks Fishing (BFF) is an organization committed to building community and expanding access, not only among Black people but also among brown and Indigenous people in the fishing industry. The organization launched the Angling for All Pledge in July.
The pledge seeks to get rid of systemic barriers to entry and participation at all levels of the fishing industry.
“Fishing has deep roots in the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) community, yet our voices are vastly underrepresented,” said Tracy Nguyen-Chung, executive director of Brown Folks Fishing, in a press statement. “We are proud to launch the Angling for All Pledge which establishes a commitment to equity and inclusion in the angling community. It is an opportunity for those within the fishing industry to cultivate the knowledge and understanding necessary to eliminate barriers and commit to radical and lasting change.”
The pledge has been in development since late 2018. It establishes a commitment to addressing racism and inequality throughout a pledgee’s internal culture, consumer-facing behaviors, and broader community.
On April 20, 2010, the U.S. experienced its worst oil spill when the U.K.-based BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 people.
Within days, underwater cameras showed the damaged wellhead pipe leaking oil and gas on the ocean floor about 42 miles off the coast of Louisiana, Smithsonian magazine reported. The well wasn’t capped until July 15, 2010 — 87 days later. By then, an estimated 3.19 million barrels of oil had leaked into the Gulf.
The damage to the area’s marine life, the Gulf coast, and human communities is still being dealt with. The population that is often forgotten in the analysis is the African-American fishermen who make their living from shrimp and oysters on the Louisiana Gulf Coast.
The numbers of Black Gulf Coast fishermen had been dwindling and the “oil spill may be the final blow to their way of life,” according to Smithsonian.
There was an effort to compensate those in the fishing industry for their losses due to the spill. Under BP’s claims process, each fisherman or woman who lost revenue due to the spill was entitled to $5,000 per month. The problem was this was just a fraction of the $10,000 to $40,000 many collected monthly from their catches. Another problem was that in the cleanup process, BP didn’t hire large numbers of Black fishers, despite a much-hyped initiative.
“As for BP’s ‘Vessels of Opportunity’ program, where fishers can get trained to take their boats and crews out to deploy boom and skim oil, only a few of them have been called for work. The Black fisher community is so small and tight-knit – by their own estimates, only about 50 to 75 — that they all know each other, and can name the handful presently working for BP,” Our Time Press reported.
By all estimates, the oil spill was a major hit to Louisiana’s $2.4 billion seafood industry. “But the cultural toll must also be considered. The disaster may signal the end of Louisiana towns like Phoenix and Point a la Hache, which hug the Mississippi River and comprise one of the state’s largest stretches of African-American fishing communities,” Time reported in 2010.
“When you’re poor and Black and this is all you know, what else are you going to do?” said Roger Moliere Sr., 71. “Was a time if a man lost his job he could always come down to the bayou and feed his family. But this here, what you got happening now, this here might finish us off.”
Moliere retired after 52 years as an oysterman and handed down his boat to his son, Roger Jr. But he said following the spill, things were not looking bright for his son’s future as an oysterman. Following the spill no one could work for months.
“Take a look out there,” he said, motioning to the out-of-work fishers. “See what they’re doing? Sitting, talking, nobody working. We’ve been out on that water all of our lives, but look what we’re doing now.”
It was a sentiment felt by many.
“We watch our livelihood and even an entire culture being washed away by crude oil and chemicals that no one knows the long-term effects of,” Black oysterman Clarence Duplessis, 65, told Time at the time of the oil spill.
Before the oil spill, the Black Gulf fishers had to recover from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Surviving in the industry has always been a struggle.
“But even before those two blows, the fishermen in Pointe a la Hache and other small, historically African-American fishing towns and villages that dot the east bank of the Mississippi River in Plaquemines Parish, south of New Orleans, have long had to fight hard for every dollar, every oyster and every opportunity they could drag out of the bayou,” The New York Times reported.
Years ago, Black Gulf fishers dealt with the red-lining of leases on the richest oyster beds and waterways. In the 1970s and ’80s they fought the laws against “hand-dredging that disproportionately limited the work of the Black oystermen.”
“Their issues are institutional and historical in a sense that they’ve been struggling for a long time,” said Jeremy Stone, with Coastal Communities Consulting, a nonprofit that provides economic development services to disadvantaged entrepreneurs along the Louisiana coast. “These guys are on the margins of solvency all the time anyway, and they don’t have a lot of resources to collateralize debts.”
The future’s not looking too bright. “We’re looking at a long road,” said Byron Encalade, president of the Louisiana Oystermen’s Association, which represents African-American and other nonwhite oystermen. “It’s not going to get any better. It’s getting worse.”
Young Black Americans aren’t entering fishing for the most part. “The very way of life in these fishing villages has been in danger as younger generations opted for work in other industries, like the local coal processing plant, or moved in search of education and fresh opportunities,” The New York Times reported.
“You might see a time when there ain’t no more black fishermen around here,” said Warren Duplessis, 49, a deckhand for a two-man oystering operation. “Because now you can’t raise no children off the side of a boat. Nowadays you’ve got to take him out of here, let him learn something with the books. No future in what we’ve been bleeding and sweating for all our lives.”
In the past, generation after generation of African Americans, mainly men, took on the career of fisher. This was especially true in Louisiana where families and communities were raised on seafood for generations. Fishing in this area, about 50 miles south of New Orleans, has been a steady source of income and employment for African Americans since the early 1900s, Our Time Press reported.
There was a time when hundreds of Black fishers occupied this area south of New Orleans, but their numbers have dwindled, particularly after Hurricane Katrina. Many fishers retired early as the hurricane destroyed their boats and homes, Our Time Press reported. When the BP oil spill happened, many wondered if this would finish off what Katrina started: the end of the Black fisher community.
The oyster farms or oyster beds are privately leased for harvesting oyster seeds selected from government-owned sea areas in the winter and spring. African Americans started owning their own boats in the 1960s and ’70s, and not long after, began owning oyster beds. But the Black owners were limited by the government as to where they could fish and harvest.
“Through the years, due to unfair policies from both the state and federal governments, we’ve lost about 90 percent of our oyster farms, and probably the same amount of boats,” said Byron Encalade, president of the Louisiana Oystermen’s Association. “There are probably just a few Black families left with oyster boats that support the rest of what’s left of the small Black fisherman community here.”
In the late ’70s, a Louisiana group called The Fishermen and Concerned Citizens of Plaquemines Parish helped reverse laws that banned the use of hand dredging, or what’s called “coonin.” The technique is used by small-time oystermen, usually Black. The ban favored larger industrial companies whose vessels could scoop up oysters in bulk, Our Time Press reported.
While Black oystermen may be decreasing, there has been an increase in Black people who fish for pleasure. According to a 2020 report, there has been an increase of Black-American anglers. A new industry study from the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation, the 2020 Special Report on Fishing found that 3.7 million African Americans participate in fishing — an increase of nearly 1 million over the last 10 years.
The boost is due in part to the coronavirus pandemic as people seek out ways to relieve stress. A separate study revealed that one in five Americans are more likely to try fishing than they were prior to the pandemic. To further increase diversity in fishing and boating, the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation recently launched a new public service initiative called Get On Board in partnership with Discover Boating, according to a press release.
St. Bernard Parish, a New Orleans suburb, has long been dominated by Black Americans. Its residents have a long fishing history. “For much of the 19th Century, the parish’s life was dominated by African-Americans — slaves, as well as freed descendants of Africans, Native Americans, and French and Spanish settlers,” Time reported. “Many of those descendants were granted land carved from the plantations that lined the river. They took to the water: fish, shrimp, oysters and crabs, all of which formed the base of the area’s diet.”
By the 1970s, many of the Black people abandoned sharecropping in favor of fishing, becoming a force in the local seafood industry, Time reported.
The Gullahs or Geechees are descendants of slaves. They lived and still do on the coastal islands and Lowcountry region of Georgia, Florida, South Carolina and the Sea Islands. They are proud fishermen. “Both coastal areas have a large Gullah/Geechee community and a history in the fishing tradition,” according to the Environmental Defense Fund blog. “The Gullah/Geechee have been a part of this history for years. Fishing is truly a valued craft upon which this group places great importance.”
Fishing by Black people in Georgia can be traced back to slavery.
“The history of the participation of African-Americans in the coastal marine fisheries of Georgia is described from a cultural landscape perspective,” Ben G. Blount wrote in “Coastal Refugees: Marginalization Of African-Americans In Marine Fisheries Of Georgia.”
“The nature of the participation was tied to characteristics of landscape, and a series of landscapes existed over a period of 250 years. In the plantation period, African Americans were virtually the only marine fishermen,” he wrote.
Fishing was also one of the few livelihoods available to freed Blacks.
While Black people in Georgia worked hard to thrive in the local fishing community, they were usually marginalized. Beginning in the late 1800s, they were marginalized in the oyster fishery, mainly because of commercialization. The new landscape included migrant fishermen who had more capital and more modern technology, Blount wrote.
Moving into the 20th century, marginalization continued with similar developments, first in the shrimp and then the blue crab fisheries.
“Marginalization was due to lack of resources to compete effectively in the newly mechanized and capitalized landscapes but also to cultural patterns of risk management,” Blount wrote. “African Americans were less willing to take capitalization risks if loss of livelihood was a possibility. Their modes of fishing, however, were less destructive of the environment and were more sustainable in the long term.”
Dr. Dionne L. Hoskins‐Brown, now an associate graduate professor in marine science at Savannah State University, conducted research to record first-hand experiences of Black people in the Georgia fishing industry. She worked with the NOAA — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries’ Southeast Fisheries Science Center and the Cooperative Marine and Education and Research Program at Savannah State University.
The project is entitled, “Tales of Landings and Legacies: African Americans in Georgia’s Coastal Fisheries.” She learned that post‐Civil War, African Americans developed communities in Georgia where traditional fishing practices created family fleets, processing plants, and other self‐sustaining fisheries work. This project documents the fishery-related occupations of African Americans in coastal Georgia from 1865 to the present.
The decline of African-American fishermen since after the Civil War has been attributed to increased fishing costs, little access to capital, and a reluctance to have children work in labor‐intensive fisheries professions, according to Hoskins‐Brown.
African-American participation in marine-related careers began as early as 1796, when the federal government issued Seamen’s Protection Certificates to merchant mariners, defining them as U.S. “citizens”. This effectively made maritime employment one way for Black people to shape their identities, according Hoskins‐Brown.
The life of a fisherman in Georgia wasn’t an easy one, according to a first-hand account by Mrs. Anne Lee Thorpe given to Hoskins‐Brown. Her late husband was a fisherman. Nearly all of the Black fishers worked for white boat owners, she said.
“He would get up at 3-to-4 .m. and go fishing for three, four days straight,” she recalled. “He would come back and stay home for about a day before he had to go back to shrimping.” This was the routine for years until, 1955 when her husband went to Key West, Florida, to take a job.
“The company would go there in the wintertime and stay he would be there for weeks,” she said.
Despite the hardship of her husband being away from home for long stints, Thorpe said she thought he would not have changed his profession.
“Fishing was his life,” she said.
Charles Hall was a fisher on Sapelo Island, Georgia. He discussed with Hoskins‐Brown about how fishing was a means of survival.
“Water was the means of survival, in terms of all the thing it produces for poor people,” Hall said. “Firstly, not just the fish and sea fowl but the fact you can get other types of nutrients such as oysters and crabs. So water was our friend.”
Hall also described how he and others would fish with a cast net. “Cast-net fishing is one of the more sustainable methods of recreational or sport fishing…A cast net is usually small enough to be operated by one person. It is round or oval, and can be thrown, or cast, over a large area. Weights on the side of the net help it sink, catching any sea creatures inside,” Hall told National Geographic.
Since most Black people in the area did not have refrigeration, they relied on smoking and salting to preserve the fish.
“Part of that survival is your ability to preserve. We did not have refrigeration, so you dried it,” he recalled.
The late Cornelia Walker Bailey, who died in 2017, was a well-known storyteller, writer, and historian who worked to preserve the Geechee-Gullah culture of Georgia’s historically Black Sapelo Island.
Hoskins‐Brown learned of the social aspects of fishing when she interviewed Walker Bailey.
Many people on the island fished for food. “Mom fished…The women went fishing in the daytime. The men did the fishing at night,” she recalled. “They fished to eat. If they caught then they would sell.”
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Walker Bailey recalled how, as a child, she would be sent to neighbors’ homes to pick up or drop off fish. “Fishing wasn’t thought of as a business,” she said. “They gave away more than they sold. It was a social thing a lot of the time.”
She continued, “The men went hunting and fishing. A cast net was something all men had in their home. You could borrow another man’s boat to go out, but you would never borrow his cast net.”