The Fishermen and the Dragon: Fear, Greed, and a Fight for Justice on the Gulf Coast
August 05, 2022
Kirk Wallace Johnson's new book documents a troubling history of rampant racism, corporate malfeasance, and industrial pollution along the Gulf Coast. And yet, in the end, it offers hope that a traditional way of earning a living, and making a life, can endure there.
The Fishermen and the Dragon: Fear, Greed, and a Fight for Justice on the Gulf Coast by Kirk Wallace Johnson, Viking
A menace was descending upon the shrimpers on the Gulf Coast in 1979. A blown-out, deep-sea oil well had deposited “an estimated 140 million gallons” into the Gulf, which was being blown slowly toward their fishing grounds. A tanker was burning just offshore Galveston Bay and another “ten million gallons of crude seeped into the seabed or went up in smoke.” Fishers were finding mutated fish, shrimp, and crab, which at least two people around San Antonio Bay suspected was the result of ongoing, “vast and toxic spills and pollutants” from the Formosa, Union Carbide, Alcoa, Dow, Dupont, and other petrochemical plants dotting the Texas coast. Hurricanes had ruined too many recent shrimping and crabbing seasons. This was all in addition to the inflation and rising fuel costs that plagued the economy of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, which hit those fishing in coastal communities especially hard at the worst possible moment. This is where Kirk Wallace Johnson begins his new book covering over four decades of fishing life in the area. And the threats to their livelihood didn’t end there:
Making matters worse, a Galveston Bay research laboratory run by the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Commercial Fisheries had recently made great strides in developing the techniques to farm shrimp. Dow Chemical poached one of the lab’s chief scientists to run one of the first commercial shrimp farms in America at its petrochemical plant—one of the largest in the world—just up the coast in Freeport. Union Carbide opened a shrimp-farming operation in India in 1978. Throughout the 1970s, the US Agency for International Development sent mariculturists to Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia to promote the “Galveston method” of shrimp farming; each year, more and more imported shrimp entered the market, depressing the value of wild-caught shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico.
Billie Joe Aplin was a crabber in Seadrift who fished the waters around San Antonio Bay. He was one of those who had suspected the petrochemical plants, specifically Alcoa, of poisoning the bay and ruining his catch. He called a town meeting to try to rally other fishermen and start a legal defense fund against the company. No one joined, not a cent was raised, and after a confrontation on the water with a Vietnamese crabber a short time later, he set his sights on a new target. He began agitating against the Vietnamese newcomers, openly antagonizing and confronting the young man, Sau Van Nguyen, he had tangled with on the water every time he saw him in town. On August 3, 1979, Aplin picked a fight with Sau and his brother in the parking lot of the Sea Drifter Inn, slashing Sau across the chest with a knife. In the ensuing melee, Billy Joe was shot dead. This was a cause that other (not all, but definitely too many) White fishermen would more readily join. Whites firebombed a Vietnamese home and two boats that night in response. When a jury found the two Vietnamese men involved in the fight that ended in Billie Joe Aplin’s death had acted in self-defense, the Ku Klux Klan arrived. When the town of Seabrook, up in Galveston Bay, held a town hall to discuss the difficulties on the Gulf in March of 1980, Wallace Johnson writes that “White fishermen had only one thing to complain about: Vietnamese shrimpers.”
Crab-picking plant owners had begged the Vietnamese newcomers to come to the Texas coast to work a job they couldn’t seem to entice previously existing locals into doing. But as the Vietnamese newcomers saved and pooled their money and started to buy boats of their own—first crabbing, and then graduating to the more lucrative shrimp trawlers—many White shrimpers saw not only a threat, but a government conspiracy against them.
They spoke of secret communists in their midst, and demanded to know just how these refugees were capable of paying so much money for their boats.
The idea that people fleeing communism were communists themselves is, of course, more than a little absurd. The leader of the Vietnamese Fishermen’s Association that sprang up in response to threats upon their community, Nam Van Nguyen, was a South Vietnamese colonel who had fought against the communists for decades.
The answer to the money question was a rotating saving and loan system known as hui, practiced in many immigrant communities, in which members contribute to a mutual pool that then gets distributed out to different individuals or families over time. It was the kind of mutual aid and entrepreneurship immigrants had been practicing in America pretty much since the American experiment began. White fishermen were also directly profiting from the arrival of the Vietnamese by selling their oldest and most decrepit boats to the Vietnamese at exorbitant, marked-up prices, using that money to build new trawlers for themselves. Despite that boon to their own pocketbooks, they imagined a conspiracy against them. Despite the increasing environmental damage that heavy industry was wreaking on the coast and the rise of industrial alternatives to traditional forms of fishing being developed by those same industries on the coast and elsewhere, they somehow singled out the Vietnamese fishermen as the greatest threat. One shrimper who had moved to Galveston Bay from Alabama summed up what large numbers of the White community believed when he told the press that the “problem is the Vietnamese. And the answer to the problem is to get rid of the Vietnamese. They are killing our bay.” Of course, while the Vietnamese were out on the water at the moment he was giving the interview:
He was drinking at the bar that day instead of fishing because of fog, and because he hadn’t gotten around to replacing a $10 pulley needed on his boat.
When the large corporations arrived, they were seen as saviors for bringing jobs even as they fouled coastal bays and invented industrial fish farming methods—both of which potentially undermined the White fishers’ livelihood and way of life on the coast. When the Vietnamese arrived, they began to fish in a way that was more traditional to both the coast and to the lives they knew back in Vietnam before the war. The irony then is that the Vietnamese were largely reinforcing the traditional way of fishing on the coast, while industry was undermining it. But, as the economic pain increased, the Vietnamese were an easy foil and target. They didn’t know all the unwritten rules of fishing that had been established on the coast, and when they unwittingly got too close to white fishers and their traps, tensions flared, vitriol spread, and violence eventually erupted.
After successfully escalating the situation and recruiting new members down in Seadrift after the death of Billie Jow Aplin, the Grand Dragon of the Texas Klan arrived in Seabrook and staged a Klan rally at which they burned a boat they had written USS VIET CONG across the side of and issued a warning to the Vietnamese that they had ninety days to get out of town. Nam Nguyen, the head of the Vietnamese Fishermen’s Association called a town hall of his own. He conceded that some of the Vietnamese newcomers made mistakes in not knowing the unwritten rules of fishing in the bay, but countered that the White fishers had make mistakes, as well, and that some of those that spoke up the loudest against the Vietnamese were those that actually fished the least. He also stated that the one charge that stung the most was that they were communists, noting that he had “personally remained behind in Vietnam to fight with my friends until the last Americans safely left the country, and I finally got out with nothing on me but a field uniform and a lot of outrage.” Then something unexpected happened:
[T]he colonel took a deep breath and arrived at his bombshell announcement: in the face of so much harassment and animosity, sixty of the one hundred Vietnamese fisherman in the area were prepared to leave.
If their boats were purchased from them at a fair price, he continued, the Vietnamese shrimpers would pledge in writing never to fish in Galveston Bay again.
You wouldn’t expect it, but the story is about to take a major turn. You’ll soon find yourself reading about how, in late 1971, “the law firm of Levin and Dees became the Southern Poverty Law Center.” Morris Dees was an unlikely candidate for this work. He had been raised poor, his grandfather had fought for the confederacy in the Civil War, and his father and uncle were both active members of the Klan. Morris himself had supported segregationist Governor George Wallace (though he would later sue Wallace “for hiring only three Black Alabamians to fill the state’s 738 governmental posts”) and had run for local office as a segregationist himself. Dees’ life up until that point had been dedicated to one thing: making as much money as possible—a foreshadowing, perhaps, of where his focus would return as, over time, he lessened the amount of active legal work the SPLC was doing in favor of fundraising.
But in 1981, Dees was determined to sue the Klan and he felt the Vietnamese had a case. He convinced them to file for an “emergency injunction from the federal government to protect their rights to fish,” naming five locals and the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan as defendants. As Nam Nguyen stepped up to news cameras after the suit was announced, he reiterated his and others willingness to voluntarily leave the coast “to prevent our property from being destroyed, to protect the lives of our families, and to be able to carry on a livelihood free from harassment,” but that they would “seek the protection of the laws of this nation that were written to protect the free operation of a person’s business, and that protect a person’s life and property from illegal acts” until they could find buyers for their boats and leave.
I will not spoil the legal and personal drama that ensues from there, but it includes the first African American judge appointed to the federal bench in Texas (and just the third Black female federal judge in US history), the revelation of a former encounter between Nam Nguyen, the former South Vietnamese colonel, and the Grand Dragon of the Texas Klan, and a lot of threats and intimidation across the board from the Klan, concluding with a decision against them. Suffice it to say that—as landmark a case as it was, as much it may have added to the history of American jurisprudence, helped put the Klan back on its heels, and protected the Vietnamese fishermen at the time—it did not solve the ultimate problems of fishing along the Texas coast. And that is because the fundamental issue, as I’m sure you know by now, was not the arrival of the Vietnamese community. It was that:
Only a couple of decades earlier, scientists out of the University of Texas at Austin mapped a five-thousand-acre of seagrass around the bay, a nursery for shrimp and crab for thousands of years. By the dawn of the 1980s, 95 percent of it was gone.
And that brings us to Act IV of the book and Diane Wilson, another person fishing the coast that had suspected that was the big petrochemical plants killing the bay. It is one of the most polluted places in America. The same month the trial ended, Texas Monthly nicknamed the coastal areas the Cancer Belt. Wilson says that she could tell where someone had worked by what kind of cancer they had.
Wilson’s family had been living around and shrimping in the waters down around Seadrift for generations. But when she began waging a campaign to have a proposed expansion to Formosa facility subjected to an environmental impact assessment, the reaction was the same Billie Joe Aplin had received: crickets. When she pushed on, the town—and even members of her own family—began treating her like an outside agitator. But she was, eventually, able to unite the community behind her, and this is where we find a glimmer of hope. There is scene near the end of the book where Vietnamese and White shrimpers arrive, en masse, together, to spring her from Coast Guard custody. It is as inspiring as it is cinematic. It is is just one of the many entirely unexpected twists in the book. It has the suspense of a legal thriller and the scope of a Steinbeck novel. The story of Morris Dees (and that of his old business partner Millard Fuller, who—in yet another small twist—would go on to found Habitat for Humanity) doesn’t end particularly well. But Diane Wilson stayed committed to a cause she believed in even when she was alone, and ended up winning the largest case in “US history stemming from a private citizens lawsuit against an industrial polluter.”
The shrimpers and others who had bad-mouthed her over the decades now look at her as the only person capable of saving the bays. Every few weeks, she gathers White and Vietnamese fishermen to discuss how the settlement money can revitalize their beleaguered industry. After a lifetime of condemning the idea as communist, they’re finally forming a co-op, pooling the catches to barter for higher prices rather than competing against one another. They are getting a new fish house and a new ice house, and replacing much of the infrastructure that has collapsed or rotted away over the years.
The book—in detailing how much harm rampant racism, corporate malfeasance, and industrial pollution has caused in people’s lives—is depressingly bleak at many points. But there are moments of hope we can ground ourselves in, moments when individuals and groups of people took and stand and made life better, brought justice, and beckoned toward a brighter future. The gulf coast will likely never be returned to the state it was in when the University of Texas at Austin mapped that five-thousand-acre of seagrass around the bay, but a way of life may yet endure there, aided by an immigrant community and the example of Diane Wilson’s courage to stand up to those who've really—and literally—been killing the bay.