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WESTSIDE COVER STORY : Net Losses : Vietnamese immigrant fishermen who ply local waters face such problems as a language barrier, dilapidated boats and complicated regulations.

March 26, 1995|ERIC SLATER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They should be at sea. After weeks of hard rain and pounding offshore breakers, the sky on this February day is almost painfully bright-blue, the ocean lapping quietly, as if exhausted by the storms. The Vietnamese fishermen should be fishing.

Instead, they squat in small groups on moored vessels, many of them barefoot and wringing their work-gnarled hands, and they wait . . . for an explanation. An answer. An end to the confusion.

The previous weekend, three of the tight-knit group had their trawl nets confiscated by the state Department of Fish and Game for allegedly fishing in closed areas of Santa Monica Bay and Orange County. Their captains swear they did nothing wrong. With the language barrier, the often-complicated fishing regulations and the rumors, each fears the same fate if he sails.

And so they wait.

For the dozen or so Vietnamese fishermen who moor their mostly dilapidated vessels at the southernmost dock of San Pedro's Fish Harbor, this is merely the latest obstacle in their daily, and nightly, struggle to pull halibut, sculpin and a meager living from an adopted sea.

It is a struggle of cultures, of economics, of ancient tradition versus modern regulation. It is a struggle that has claimed four lives in the past year, all lost when a boat sank mysteriously near Catalina Island. Three other vessels have also sunk. And now three boats have lost their precious nets.

Wardens took Ngoc Truong's net, winch and other equipment worth some $5,000. Department of Fish and Game officials said Truong, like the others now netless, was harvesting fish in waters off limits to commercial fishermen. He will have his day in court, but Truong worries about what he will do for money in the meantime.

Taking his net, he says, is like taking his leg.

And when the 37-year-old learns there will be no work on his friend's boat today either, because the friend fears leaving the harbor, Truong drops his head into his hands to hide his emotions.

"I really need to go out today," he says quietly. "I need to pay rent."

On a good day, these vessels will return with a catch worth $500 to $700. But the money is divided among three or four deckhands. About $200 of it goes for diesel fuel. Then there is the ice and food to buy and the constant expenses for upkeep.

"It's very expensive to go out and not catch anything," says Jerry Spansail, patrol captain for the state Department of Fish and Game in Los Angeles and Orange Counties. Sometimes a fish-rich but off-limits area like Santa Monica Bay can be difficult to resist. "It's tempting to go to that fishpond," he said.

The Vietnamese fishing fleet is tucked away at the end of a row of gigantic metal fish crates stacked four high, past the Heinz food processing plant and across from the Terminal Island Correctional Facility. For the most part, the boats lashed here are considerably older than the neighboring American-owned vessels. And they sport names like the Saigon I, Than Phat, Van Slee, remembrances of a war-ravaged homeland their owners had fled 10 or 20 years ago.

Truong's story is typical. He left his native country in 1975--the year South Vietnam fell to the communists--when he was 17. He spent the next two years in refugee camps in Indonesia (others went to Malaysia, the Philippines and other way-station countries) before arriving in the United States with his parents and eight siblings. After drifting from odd job to odd job, fishermen friends encouraged Truong to join them. He peddled ice cream for three years to raise the down payment for the William Truong--named for his 9-year-old son.

A life at sea, less romantic than grueling, has been especially trying for the Vietnamese fishermen. Many of them began casting lines and nets with their fathers and grandfathers on the South China Sea, where they could fish where and how they wanted and fill a boat with all it could hold.

Few speak fluent English, even after a decade or more here. Many support extended families; some send money to relatives still in Vietnam. And, while many of their American counterparts are from families that have been in the local seagoing business for generations--acquiring vessels and nets and knowledge--the Vietnamese have had to start from scratch.

"Work, work, work, work and work," says Tien Van Nguyen, 31, as he repairs the engine of the Pico II.

Work all night, when the fishing is best. Work for days and weeks on end. Lay nets, bait hooks, heft snapper and sculpin and sea cucumbers into the boat's icy hold.

"The Vietnamese fishing fleet here in Los Angeles is an extremely hard-working group of people," says Steve Denning, a civilian who is the officer in charge at Coast Guard Station Los Angeles.

*

One of the most difficult and time-consuming tasks the community faces each day is simply keeping the boats afloat.

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