Vietnamese American Fishermen

By Kassy Saeppunh

Fishing is an activity that some people view as a hobby. For some Asian Americans, fishing has a historical significance that traces back to hundreds of years and has helped Asian immigrants succeed in the United States, a place known for the ‘American dream’ that says success comes with hard work.

In 1975, many Vietnamese refugees settled in the Monterey Bay area of California to start a new life after war struck their homeland, forcing them to flee. Many of these refugees were fishermen who had to find a way to support their families in a new country. These men, had skills such as hunting, fishing and gardening that helped them in their homeland, but coming into the United States had not prepared them to change their way of living to accommodate the American way of life.

Settling in the Monterey Bay, many Vietnamese fishermen worked hard to support their families and earned little through catching and selling fish. As refugees, these fishermen were not familiar with the American fishing customs and laws. Fishing gear was extremely costly for refugees, especially since they came to the U.S with little money. Supplies such as small fishing boats and tools to catch fish were also expensive, so Vietnamese fishermen pooled their resources by sharing boats and splitting the day’s earnings.  In essence, fishing wasn’t just a way of feeding the fishermen’s own families, but uniting the Vietnamese communities in Monterey Bay as well.

The Vietnamese fishermen used gillnets, a cheap and easy Vietnamese fishing tool used to catch a lot of fish in a short time. Gillnets are traditionally made of monofilament or woven mesh that are anchored at the bottom of the sea and opened by corks and held down by weights.  Gillnets allowed Vietnamese fishermen to catch a lot of fish, but are easily torn and lost, which can be bad for the environment and other fishermen.

The Vietnamese fishermen’s use of gillnets and their accompanying success led to tension with American fishermen who were not catching as many fish; they argued that gillnets should be banned because its use “harmed the sea,” but in reality it was to ban the refugees from fishing with the only way they knew how and could afford. The Indochinese Resettlement Assistance Program came into the picture to help alleviate the tension. This experience of hostility is similar to what other Asian immigrants encountered in the United States. For example, the Scott Act, directed at Chinese fishermen circa 1850, prevented fishermen to go far out into sea to fish.  Other extreme incidents include the mysterious fire in 1906 [HK1] that ruined a huge supply of the Chinese immigrants’ dried fish.

Fishing has played a huge role for Asian Americans. It’s what kept Asian immigrants to survive and it continues today with many Asian American fishermen who work hard to survive in the United States.

References and Further Reading:

1. http://www.mchsmuseum.com/chinesefishing.html

2. Indochinese Adaptation and Local Government Policy: An Example from Monterey

By Michael K. Orback and Janese Beckwith

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