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Food Security

Backyard ponds keep fishermen afloat

Vietnamese American fishermen in the New Orleans area were hit hard by the BP oil spill three years ago. But a new urban farming project is helping the fishing communities reduce their dependency on the open water.

Sang Ho left Vietnam 34 years ago, when he was a young man, and has worked in the US ever since. He lives in a suburban part of New Orleans, not far from the wetlands and the open water. He has five adult children. Two are pharmacists, one manicures nails, and the youngest two are studying at university and still live at home. For decades, Sang fished the waters off the Louisiana coast. But that changed three years ago.

Pelikan covered in oil (photo: Tannen Maury epa) (c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

The oil spill has killed thousands of birds, fish and other marine creatures

On April 20, 2010 there was an explosion at BP's Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico. It tore open an oil well, causing a spill that polluted 7000 kilometers of coastline, from Texas all the way to Florida. The brunt of the oil washed ashore in the area east and west of the Mississippi, close to New Orleans, Louisiana.

It was the worst offshore oil spill in US history. It shut down the nation's richest fishing grounds for months. Fishing communities all along the Gulf of Mexico reported deformed fish and shrimp in their hauls as well as an overall drop in yields.

Growing crops and fish together

Sang Ho and many of the other people who fished these waters had to find another way to support themselves. Sang Ho started in his own backyard, where he built a small aquaponics system that provides him with fish and vegetables. The tanks are protected by a small shed. A translucent blue tarp stretched overhead forms the roof of his greenhouse.

Plants in Sang Ho's greenhouse (photo: Bryan Kelso)

The plants digest nutrients from fish waste and return clean water to the tanks

Aside from tarps to mellow the intense Louisiana sun, the greenhouse is open to the elements. Tiny seedlings of basil, lemongrass and other herbs and greens poke out of small square plastic pots, bending gently in the breeze.

The fish tank water carries nutrients from the fish faeces and this fertilizes the plants. The plants digest the nutrients, reducing the toxicity of the water, which is returned to the tanks - and the cycle continues. Almost every aspect of the growing process can be controlled, ensuring Sang greater financial stability.

Many Vietnamese fishermen set up aquaponics systems like Sang Ho's. Some have joined an aquaponics farming cooperative run by the MQVN Community Development Corporation. The group was created to help Vietnamese-Americans in New Orleans rebuild their lives after hurricane Katrina. And it has continued its work as the community grapples with the aftermath of the BP oil spill.

A supplement to the family income

Khai Nguyen helps run MQVN's aquaponics farmers' coop. He gives the farmers technical advice so they can run their aquaponics systems, and helps them sell the produce they grow. The coop is intended to help Louisiana's Vietnamese communities find economic alternatives to fishing. Even before the oil spill, there was concern about overfishing, Khai Nguyen explains.

Mrs. Ho in her family's greenhouse
(photo: Bryan Kelso)

Sang Ho's wife tends to the basil, lemongrass and other greens in this backyard greenhouse

"Fishing is very important to Vietnamese people, to our community. When they first came to the New Orleans area after the Vietnam War, this was something that was familiar to them right away."

A lot of the Vietnamese familes living near the Gulf of Mexico have their roots in fishing villages in Vietnam, he adds.

Court case continues

The BP oil company has offered a settlement agreement to compensate people affected by the spill. But locals say it is hard to calculate the cost of the damage done to the environment - no one knows what things will be like in a few years. Meanwhile, a trial continues in New Orleans to determine who is to blame for massive spill.

The Vietnamese community here isn't waiting. By producing crops and raising fish in their own backyards, they are no longer vulnerable to factors they can't control, such as hurricanes and oil spills.

Fresh local food

Fresh, homegrown produce from the backyards of New Orleans is increasingly in demand. More than a dozen local restaurants buy regularly from the aquaponics farmers as part of a movement in the city to eat locally-grown food. Local sourcing means less fuel is used while transporting the food and less packaging is required to keep it fresh.

The Maurepas restaurant is one of the coop's regular customers. DW met with chef Michael Doyle as he waited for an order of salad greens and lemon balm.

"That goes in one of our cocktails, a lemon balm sour. That goes in a rum cocktail with rhubarb."

Khai Nguyen in Sang Ho's greenhouse (photo: Bryan Kelso)

Khai Nguyen teaches the farmers how to build and maintain aquaponics systems

Doyle and other restaurateurs are helping build vital relationships with local fishing communities and farmers. Doyle says he would probably pay more buying at a store for this sort of boutique quality, so reaching out to the aquaponics coop is mutually beneficial.

Other aquaponics programs are taking root in New Orleans, including one near the city's main business district. The Recirculating Farms Coalition and the New Orleans Food and Farm Coalition are partnering up to launch a project that will include aquaponics. Their goal is to raise food and share growing techniques with urban residents, particularly those with lower incomes.

In the aftermath of one of the worst environmental catastrophes in US history, Louisiana is creating a dynamic, socially-responsible food movement based on sustainable, urban farming.

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