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The end of Black oystermen in Louisiana

Louisiana state officials are working to restore the state’s disappearing coastline, but their environmental plans are coming at the expense of Black Oystermen.

Transcript

Into America

Louisiana’s Last Black Oystermen

Trymaine Lee: Way down on the east bank of the Mississippi River about an hour from New Orleans lies a small fishing community by the name of Pointe à la Hache.

Byron Encalade: This is a place like no other in the world.

Lee: This predominantly Black fishing village in Plaquemines Parish has built their life around the water.

Encalade: That was our bank, that was our food, that was everything to us.

Lee: Byron Encalade is the founder of the Louisiana Oysterman Association, a mostly Black union that represents oystermen of color. Byron's grandfather began harvesting oysters and passed the tradition down to Bryon's father who then passed it to him.

Encalade: You can't remember when you first start because you start from a child, you know?

Lee: For at least four generations, the majority of Black residents in Pointe à la Hache has sustained their families on fishing, mainly for oysters.

Encalade: This was known as one of the richest oyster grounds in the world.

Lee: The bayous between the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico have long been the economic engine for their businesses, the backdrop for play and leisure, and the force that kept this village nourished. With each new generation, the art and labor of oyster harvesting was passed down, and with it, many treasures the sea offered: work, food, culture.

In the way that water shapes a canyon, water has shaped Pointe à la Hache. The community has weathered natural disasters and man-made ones, deadly storms, toxic spills, and racist policies. But the mounting challenges of climate change could be its biggest threat yet.

Louisiana has 4 million acres of wetlands along its coastline. This incredibly diverse ecosystem has sustained communities like Pointe à la Hache for generations. But rising sea levels and increasingly powerful storms, both tied to climate change, are causing this land to disappear.

Michael Hopkins: The water levels, the sea levels in the Gulf are rising let's say three millimeters a year. So in the last 80 or 90 years, the state's lost about 2,000 square miles.

Lee: According to a coalition of state advocacy groups, Louisiana loses more than a football field of its jagged coastline every 100 minutes. Without solution, coastal communities will be increasingly more vulnerable to storms, and residents on the water will continue to be displaced from their homes.

But the state says it has a plan. Louisiana wants to reroute part of the Mississippi River directly to the wetlands so the water could deposit sediment and recover some of the land that's been eroded. The state says this is the only way to ensure that places like Pointe à la Hache aren't lost to the rising ocean.

Keslyn Williams: This is home. There's no place like home, you know? I'm gonna be here forever.

Lee: But the Mississippi River is mostly made up of fresh water. Oysters need brackish water, a mix of fresh and saltwater, to survive. And that balance is crucial. So while bringing the river through the bayou may stop the land loss, Byron says this influx of fresh water could crush what's left of Pointe à la Hache's rich Black cultural heritage. I'm Trymaine Lee and this is Into America. Today, a community on the brink.

Encalade: They didn't drop bombs on us with a plane, but they dropped the Mississippi River right in our lap.

Lee: The fishermen of Pointe à la Hache have made the coast of Louisiana their home for as long as anyone can remember. But the only way to save the land might be to wipe out their livelihoods.

Encalade: This place would be boomin' not bustin'.

Lee: On a sunny day in Pointe à la Hache, Byron Encalade takes me on a walk through the old marina not far from his house. It's quiet. No chatter, no old men shooting the breeze, and no laughter like the good old days when this place was humming with energy. Now, broken boats are like broken dreams. They fill this place. So what did this marina mean to the vitality of the community?

Encalade: Oh, this was it. This was the main source of revenue for the community. The old people would come down here, catch the boats comin' in, would get 'em a few oysters, crabs, shrimps, and stuff.

Lee: Byron remembers boat after boat taking off and coming into this dock. Fishermen unloading their catches from the day: shrimp, crabs, and most of all, oysters. The joyous buzz of kids playing out on the water. Trucks lined up for miles down the nearest highway to buy fresh food from Pointe à la Hache and cook it up for their families or take it to famous restaurants like Dooky Chase up in New Orleans.

Encalade: You know Acme and all these places in the French Quarter? Leah Chase, Dooky Chase? Where do you think they was gettin' that good, fresh seafood from? Right down here. She'd say, like, she'd get crabs and oysters and stuff at her place at 8:00, 9:00 in the morning 'cause the fishermen went out in the bayou early morning. And she'd have enough in her pot for 12:00. (LAUGH) Now, tell me how you're gonna beat that, you know? Yeah.

Lee: With a population of a little more than 100, the culture of Pointe à la Hache was one that bred closeness. Everyone was kin to somebody, everyone accounted for. And care was the highest currency. Life here was one of abundance.

Encalade: You just never worried about havin' somethin' to eat. If you were hungry, you went out (LAUGH) there and got somethin' to eat, you know? I mean, we had pear trees all up and down. Grandmother used to preserve all of that, you know?

Lee: And I know it's probably hard, but do you have a favorite memory of childhood in this community?

Encalade: Oh yeah. Yeah. I used to open the fence right back there and go ride the horses, and the cattle were there, and go back to my P-Rogue (PH). I used to park it right 'side the ditch there. We'd go back there, Grandmother tell us, "Eh, I'm gonna cook a gumbo, some stewing. Go get the crabs." (LAUGH)

Lee: The tradition of Black oystermen in Louisiana dates back centuries when enslaved Africans worked these waters. After emancipation, many Black oystermen stayed on doing a kind of sharecropping on the water, working on white-owned boats where they kept a small percentage of the profits.

Encalade: You had to work for somebody else, you know.

Lee: But at a certain point, Black people began harvesting oysters for themselves.

Encalade: We all at one point got away from it and became independent and had our own boats and all that.

Lee: In the early 1970s, Byron got home from serving in the Vietnam War. He went on to get a college degree in mechanical engineering from Delgado Community College and got a job with one of the big oil companies in the area. He continued to harvest oysters on the side. But in 1975, his family approached him with a problem. They had plenty of oysters but not enough buyers.

Encalade: And remember, you were comin' outta a place that, you know, you had a strong grip on these oyster fishermen, you know? Keepin' 'em on oyster plantations more or less.

Lee: Byron decided to change that. He got in his truck and drove all over the East Coast, networking with seafood retailers and businesses, convincing them to buy oysters from Pointe à la Hache caught by Black oystermen.

Encalade: And it worked. It took off and we started shippin' to Virginia, Alabama, Florida, and then New Orleans.

Lee: They even fought back against racist legislation aimed at shutting down Black-owned boats, and they won, allowing the industry to thrive. For decades, business was booming. Then disaster struck.

Archival Recording: Everywhere here there are signs both large and small that Katrina was here.

Archival Recording: These Air Force chopper pilots spot a man on the porch of his flooded house.

Archival Recording: We got people in two-story houses that's still tryin' to survive in the houses.

Archival Recording: As levees like these were breached today, the flood of water has made utility--

Lee: Hurricane Katrina killed around 1,800 people throughout the Gulf coast, and caused $125 billion in damage. In Pointe à la Hache, homes were torn apart and flooded. Fishing and oyster fleets, destroyed. Byron says the community had survived storms before, but at Katrina, they were left with more than just wind and water damage.

He says a flurry of racist policies made rebuilding almost impossible. After Katrina, the state set aside $7.9 billion in housing relief aid to homeowners who suffered damage during the storm. In order to get that money, families had to prove ownership.

But years of Jim Crow laws and other racist housing policies like redlining had forced Black families into complicated living situations, often without official paperwork. Some Black families in Pointe à la Hache say they waited years to get their aid approved. How much do you think is intentionally aimed at the Black community? And how much of it's just a byproduct where they're just makin' decisions and sayin', "This is what--"

Encalade: Well--

Lee: --"it is"?

Encalade: --let's put it this way. If you're askin' me if they're doin' it because of race, no. But what happens is, and this is why we talk about institutional racism, okay? You don't have the power to fight back in this community. You don't have the money nor the resources. Because through the times, you've always shortchanged 'em because of bad policies.

Lee: So while Black and white residents may have suffered similar damages, structural inequities in aid distribution forced many Black families out of the fishing industry.

Encalade: Well, most of 'em, those that could get out and do other things, did it. But there are some still right back to where we were when the struggle first was fought who basically fought that struggle to get us from underneath the oyster plantations.

Lee: But just like before, some oystermen gradually built themselves back up. Then, on April 20th, 2010, another blow.

Archival Recording: There's a state of emergency in effect in the State of Louisiana and a grim countdown's underway until crude oil reaches the shoreline.

Archival Recording: Late last night, the government said the BP well is spewing 5,000 barrels of crude into the Gulf each day.

Archival Recording: The White House is involved, the government's been mobilized. It's been declared a spill of national significance.

Archival Recording: Louisiana's governor, Bobby Jindal, today declared a state of emergency.

Archival Recording: It's five times larger than we were first told, spilling out in three different--

Lee: The oil leaked for 87 days, the worst offshore spill in U.S. history, coating the wetlands and choking the animals that live there. Clean-up crews sprayed chemical dispersants into the waters bringing the oil to the surface so it could be collected.

These chemicals are allowed by the government and BP says they don't cause damage but studies have shown they're harmful to marine life. Byron says the oil and these clean-up chemicals were devastating to the oysters around Pointe à la Hache.

Encalade: People think Katrina destroyed. No, Katrina destroyed the homes but, as you can see, we build back. But when you dump all these chemicals in that water, you're destroying the foundation of what it takes for those oysters and that seafood to reproduce.

Lee: He told me there were two major tragedies that defined the response to the oil spill in Louisiana.

Encalade: The first one was the state decided to use the diversions to keep the oil out and keep the chemicals that they put in out. That worked, to a degree.

Lee: The State of Louisiana redirected fresh water from the Mississippi River to flush out the oil-soaked coastal waterways. But, again, this attempt to help clear the waters brought more problems.

Encalade: You need certain amount of fresh water to create the right salinity to grow oysters. And if it's too much salt water, if the salinity get too high, then the oysters'll die. If it's too low, they'll die.

Lee: Byron believes this massive flow of fresh water killed many of the oysters by Pointe à la Hache, and they never really recovered. But there was somethin' else.

Encalade: Then BP, when they set up a compensation fund to take care of the people, the people in this community was left out.

Lee: Like the relief funds after Katrina, BP and the state required detailed documentation for claims to get approved. And Black fishermen in Pointe à la Hache faced the same problems they had before.

Encalade: You get hurt because you lose your income. Then you get hurt because you lose your food source, you know, and the things that sustained you.

Lee: We hear, like, in many disasters those who had the most resources to start with end up getting more because they had the bigger boats and they could rebuild the restaurant roof and they can do it. But the little guy who needs it ends up gettin' the--

Encalade: You've got it correctly.

Lee: Oyster levels by Pointe à la Hache are at an all-time low. Wildlife experts who study the region say that the oyster population in that area has actually been in decline since the early 2000s from a combination of over-fishing and influxes of fresh water dating back to the 1970s. But Byron and other local fishermen put most of the blame for the current situation on something called the Mardi Gras Pass.

Encalade: Right now, Mardi Gras Pass is the number one culprit we have over here on the east bank.

Lee: In 2011, the Mississippi River flooded over its banks and eroded a new channel that brought fresh water into the brackish bayou. Brackish water is a mix of salt and fresh water. And just like after the BP oil spill, Byron says that influx of Mississippi River water killed many oysters where oystermen harvested them, or caused the oysters to find better habitats away from the east bank.

Since the State of Louisiana owns the water bottoms, oystermen have to pay for a private lease to harvest oysters from designated plots. But years of discriminatory lease practices and moratoriums on oyster leases have made it nearly impossible to get a new one. So when the oysters died or migrated away from the east bank where most Black fishermen have their leases, they were never able to recover.

Encalade: They didn't drop bombs on us with a plane, but they dropped the Mississippi River right in our lap. And the results were the same: You destroyed a community.

Lee: From 2001 to 2016, the state estimated that the number of oysters in the area dropped by more than 50%.

Hopkins: People that say, "Oh, Mardi Gras Pass is causing the oysters..." it's, like, not really because they don't explain that decline. And so you need to figure out what caused the decline to begin with.

Lee: Dr. Michael Hopkins is with the nonprofit Pontchartrain Conservancy which works really closely with the state. He noted that the oyster levels do fluctuate year to year, and sometimes it's hard to tell why. But when we looked at the data from the state, it showed huge drops after Katrina, the BP oil spill, and the Mardi Gras Pass.

But from Michael's perspective, the Mardi Gras Pass has actually created some really positive environmental gains because, as the Mississippi River flows toward the Gulf of Mexico, it drops sediment along the banks building new land across Louisiana's disappearing coastline.

Hopkins: Over time, you're building up this mudflat into a grassy marsh area that then, if you provide it with sediment and with nutrients and fresh water, it can survive.

Lee: This has been a major win for a state that's rapidly losing land to erosion caused partly by climate change. And instead of closing the pass, the state actually wants to create more channels like this to divert parts of the Mississippi through more of this coastal region.

Hopkins: And Mardi Gras Pass is a great example because it's sort of like on the extreme end, completely un-managed. What does that look like?

Lee: Creating several of these fresh water diversions is the centerpiece of Louisiana's 50-year, $50 billion plan to save the coastline. One of them would directly impact the bayou that Byron and so many other Black fishermen have depended on. White fishing communities like ones on the west bank are at risk too. The state told us they know the fresh water will impact the fishing industry overall in the short term. But officials say if they don't act, there may not be a Louisiana left for anybody.

Encalade: This was it, man. This was my life, I mean. And it's sad that the next generation won't know nothin' about it.

Lee: How's it feel to see it like this now, so quiet?

Encalade: Man, this is terrible, man.

Lee: You've been oysterin' for 40 years. That's what you've been doin' your whole life. What do you do when you lose that?

Encalade: Everything dyin' from Canobie all the way down below here, you know? And so how do you deal with that? If one day, I'm shippin' trail truckloads of oysters; the next day, I can't even fill up a pickup truck.

Lee: What impact has that had on the community here?

Encalade: They're all gone.

Lee: Byron had planned on passing his business down to his nephews. Instead, oystermen are telling their kids to pursue other skills. Go off to college, and leave the waters of Plaquemines Parish behind.

Encalade: We had two schools and everything. Now you barely got enough kids to fill one school, you know? Because when you can't make a livin', you're gonna leave. I mean, that's the bottom line. So a lotta the young people have gone, you know. When they get of age, they go on better places.

Lee: There is an economic impact, but it seems that it's more than just about the money. What's at stake if we don't save communities like this, and this community in particular?

Encalade: Well, that's it. I mean, come on. Look at the City of New Orleans. Go try and buy an oyster po'boy or go get a seafood plate. It's not the same when you left before Katrina, you know? They don't even sell 'em. And that's the big tragedy that they don't see. When Plaquemine Parish go, so does the City of New Orleans go. So does Baton Rouge.

Lee: But not all is lost. When we come back, a family of Black shrimpers fighting to keep the tradition alive.

K. Williams: We're gettin' ready for the upcomin' season, the May season. Gettin' ready for the shrimpin'.

Russell: Yeah.

Lee: Stick with us.

K. Williams: Try to take advantage of this good weather I have right now. And hope I have a good season to upcomin' May, you know?

Lee: This is Keslyn Williams. He and his older brother, Derrayon, are shrimpers born and raised in Pointe à la Hache.

D. Williams: You know, finally had a chance to get it up off the water, you know? Got a good bit of work to be done. Got a lotta weldin' work to be done.

Lee: Producers Allison Bailey and Stefanie Cargill met Keslyn and Derrayon at the docks earlier this month. They found them fixing up their boat to prepare for the shrimp season in May.

Russell: Get a little refreshment now. I need some refreshment. (UNINTEL PHRASE)

Lee: That's Uncle Russell. He grew up with Byron and came out to help his nephews with the boat. The brothers named the boat Lil Wigs after their grandfather who taught them everything they know about fishing.

K. Williams: Hold up.

Lee: It's a 29-foot boat with black and red on the bottom and white on top.

Russell: Both of them--

K. Williams: Both them comin' up?

Russell: --both them comin' up.

Lee: Apart from a few cars passing through, the brothers and their Uncle Russell were the only ones there. Their laughter and conversation filled the air as they worked on a propped up Lil Wigs in a dirt lot.

D. Williams: I'm telling you.

Russell: Yeah?

Lee: Derrayon has an easy smile and is kinda shy while Keslyn is outspoken and charismatic. But both love telling stories about growing up on the bayou.

K. Williams: See, my grandfather would say, "If you don't know how to swim," throw you off the boat--

D. Williams: You'll learn (UNINTEL). (LAUGHTER) You'll learn--

K. Williams: I'm serious. Seriously, "You gonna swim or drown."

D. Williams: Yep.

K. Williams: (UNINTEL PHRASE). And my daughters, we could be goin', and jump right in the water, you know--

Producer: That is old school. (LAUGH)

K. Williams: Yeah. How my son was going--

D. Williams: We were doin' the shrimp one time, comin' through the bayou, we told him, "Don't hang--"

Russell: He's hangin' from the net.

D. Williams: Yeah, "Don't go over there. Don't go on the set (PH). Don't go on the set." He wanna keep with the basket. Guess what? Him and the basket, gone.

K. Williams: And he was in the middle of the bayou--

D. Williams: In the middle of the bayou.

K. Williams: --in a shrimp basket.

D. Williams: And he was in there. I don't know how he wound up in the basket--

Russell: Oh, man. (LAUGHTER)

D. Williams: I don't know why he wound up in the basket, you know? That was crazy, that day. That was crazy, I'm tellin' you.

Lee: The brothers' father died when they were just six and eight years old so their grandfather and uncles helped raise them. Uncle Russell has been a huge influence in their lives, teaching them lessons about manhood and the water, just like his father did for him.

Russell: I never forgot what he used to say: If a man don't work, he don't eat. (LAUGH) You know what I'm sayin'? So we took our nephews and everybody and, you know, taught 'em the right thing, you know? Make sure you go in the right direction. Go to college, take care of your kids, you know? And they're doing good, you know?

K. Williams: You know, growing up, I was a little boy, and my uncle, used used to have a little small boat with a little bottom net. And we caught a big Gulf fish. (LAUGH) And I didn't know what it was, I thought it was a dinosaur or somethin'. And I was like, "Oh, man." He was like, "Don't worry about it. We gonna eat tonight," you know? Like--

Russell: Oh yeah.

K. Williams: --"What do you mean?" You know? He always said, "Y'all, your fryin' pan will never be rusty. You know, it always--"

Russell: That's it.

K. Williams: --"gonna be greasy."

Russell: Yep. Yeah.

K. Williams: You know, no matter what. It wasn't about money, it was just about the love and just time out on the water, family time, you know? It was just--

D. Williams: That's it.

Lee: As they spoke with our team, they were on a mission to finish up the boat before the end of the weekend.

K. Williams: If I don't get this fixed right here, I mean, it's no money for the family, you know? So, I mean, I have five kids and everybody dependin' on this boat. So, you know, we gotta make sure everything is right.

Lee: As much as they love shrimping, the brothers know they can't support themselves or their families doing this work full time. They run a seafood company called Lil WIG Seafood and Catering Boat as their part-time job. But full time, Keslyn works in the oil and gas industry, operating underwater robots, and Derrayon works as a barge dock supervisor.

K. Williams: We still shrimpin'. I have another cousin--

D. Williams: Cousin.

K. Williams: --he's still shrimpin'.

Both: Yep. Uh-huh (AFFIRM).

K. Williams: But, I mean, it's up to us now because the older generation, my uncles and stuff, they're gettin' up in age. They can't do what they used to do, you know. And things ain't the same no more, you know. You have to have a second job to even survive--

Both: Yeah. Yeah.

K. Williams: --out here on the bayou, you know. It's not the same, you know? You know, back in the days when my grandfather was workin' the bayous, I mean, they didn't have to do anything. Sent 'em to college and everything just from the waters, you know? But we can't do that right now, you know?

Lee: The Williams brothers say Mardi Gras Pass, the breach that allows the Mississippi River to flow into the wetlands, the one that Byron Encalade says killed the oysterman community, affects them too.

D. Williams: You know, it was just a little cut at first. It wasn't affecting that much. As it started growin', now it's about 60 foot deep and I don't know how wide.

Lee: Keslyn says things haven't been the same for years, especially the fish.

K. Williams: We used to catch speckled trout, redfish, flounder--

D. Williams: Yeah--

K. Williams: --just right here.

D. Williams: --right there.

K. Williams: Now, you maybe catch a few catfish, and that's a freshwater fish, you know? And catfish or, you know, a few bass, you know, but a lotta stuff is gone now.

Lee: Mardi Gras Pass has impacted the oyster and shrimp industry in different ways. Shrimpers like the Williams brothers aren't bound by leases like the oystermen. So if the shrimp migrate, the brothers can chase them as long as they have the right permits.

K. Williams: We watch the tide, you know. We have an app on our phone. You know, you play the moon, you know? Play the moon, my grandfather told us that. Play the moon. If the moon is right, we just go, drop, and start testing. We have these frames that goes on the side, and we just start pushin', you know. And everything is a hope game, you know? We gotta hope for the--

D. Williams: Yep.

K. Williams: --best, you know? And hope they don't have a thousand boats from other places.

Lee: But because of Mardi Gras Pass, the Williams brothers now have to compete with bigger boats, harsher waters, and make a longer journey.

K. Williams: We used to go maybe out five minutes from here, just turn in this canal right--

D. Williams: Right there, the canal--

K. Williams: --here and drop--

D. Williams: --right there used to be loaded with shrimp.

K. Williams: Now? We have to go two--

D. Williams: Two, three hours.

K. Williams: --three hours that way.

D. Williams: Yep.

K. Williams: You know, in rougher water. I mean--

D. Williams: Yep. Oh yeah.

K. Williams: --this little boat here--

D. Williams: Sometimes, can't even handle it, you know?

K. Williams: So we gotta just stay on the inside--

D. Williams: Stay on the inside.

K. Williams: --you know? But the bigger boats, we can't afford no big boats, you know? I mean--

D. Williams: Yeah.

K. Williams: So we just hope for the best, you know. And, I mean, they have a lotta other people have big boats, you know. So, I mean, I don't know.

D. Williams: We just make the best of it.

Lee: To Keslyn, they most more than their industry in Pointe à la Hache.

K. Williams: And the main thing is we miss the family tradition, you know? I mean, we came up like this, and our kids, you know, I mean, our kids'll never see what we've seen of the marina, you know? We try to bring 'em fishin' or whatever, but they'll never see what we've seen or whatever. We take 'em out and go fishin' off the dock, but they'll never see it. It's never be the same.

Lee: Keslyn is a father of five, and all of his children love the water, especially his little girls.

K. Williams: And we go out on the boat sometime at night and we load the boat up. And my daughters, they be happy, you know? They be like, "Oh, we go have some money," you know? I was like, "Yep, let's roll." And we take a lotta pictures for memories, you know. And--

Producer: Your girls know the story of what happened here?

K. Williams: Oh yeah. Slowly but surely, I'm explaining to 'em, but as they get older, you know. But right now, they understand a little bit, you know, but they're not old enough. But as they get older, I'm steadily bringin' 'em, you know, just lettin' 'em know what's going on and stuff, you know. This can't be their full-time job, you know. I mean, just try to start a little seafood company up but I don't know. I know it sucks.

D. Williams: It ain't gonna work.

Lee: By fishing, Keslyn and Derrayon are fighting hard to preserve their family heritage and legacy, a legacy even more endangered by the state's plans to divert water from the Mississippi into the wetlands.

Russell: People that's got these plans don't have to depend on this here, shrimping, you know? They just comin' up with a suggestion.

K. Williams: Yeah. Just shrimpin', oysters, everything.

Russell: Yep.

K. Williams: You know, they don't know what's going on, all right, but they passing these bills, you know. I mean, we gettin' affected, our family gettin' affected, you know. So, I mean, seem like we have to settle for whatever they decide, you know?

D. Williams: Yes.

K. Williams: And it shouldn't be like that, you know?

Lee: Keslyn thinks there are other ways the state can restore the coastline.

K. Williams: They have a lotta options. I mean, the sand that they pumped in here, they could get a barge and pump the sand from outta the bayous back into the marsh, you know? I mean, you can't even get out the canal over here because, if you might, you'll knock your wheel off the boat. Just suck the sand that came in and just pump it back into the marsh, you know?

D. Williams: Yep.

K. Williams: They're just pumpin' it in and not even worryin' about where it go.

Lee: The state told us they do pump sand to help restore the land, but it's a lot more expensive. And it's simply not a long-term solution for the disappearing coastline. The research, they say, shows that the sediment buildup from diverting the Mississippi will be far more permanent.

Louisiana's multibillion-dollar plan to save its coastline over the next 50 years with these diversion projects still has to go through an environmental review process, though people expect it to pass. And if it does pass, the state currently has no plan to protect communities like Pointe à la Hache.

Instead, state officials told us they plan to ask the fishing communities what would help them survive, like money for relocating docks, bigger boats, or fuel subsidies so fishermen like the Williams brothers can chase fish as they move further out into the Gulf. Like Byron, Derrayon believes if the state closed up the Mardi Gras Pass and didn't implement any new diversions, Pointe à la Hache could once again be a thriving fishing community.

D. Williams: It'll take a couple-a years, but I'm pretty sure. I'm confident because when the river is real low, you see the salt waters that are comin' back in, you know? The minute the river rise, it start rushin' through there and pushin' it back out. That's one of the things.

So I see a change, if they close it, you know, and do those little dredgin' they need to do so we can be able to maneuver out, it'll have some potential to come back. They have to stop the diversion. If they don't stop it, won't have nothin' left. Ain't gonna have nothin'. Ain't even gonna have no water left after a while.

Lee: But Keslyn, he thinks it's too late.

K. Williams: The thing is is I don't think it's gonna be the same because a lotta people is just walkin' away from it. A lotta people sayin' there's no more hope. Like, the people just started givin' up, you know? I mean, it's just not just the boats and stuff. I mean, the communities, you know--

D. Williams: Yeah, I know.

K. Williams: --everyone is being affected, you know? I mean, you go to any house over there, every house over that levee depend on this bayou, this waterway, you know. But now it's like people just givin' up hope. You know, it's no hope, you know. It's like it's whatever, you know? So.

Lee: So after all this hardship and loss, why does he stick with it?

K. Williams: It's part of me, you know? It's part of me, you know? And I wish I could change the way things is, you know, but.

Lee: Pointe à la Hache, Louisiana is a throwback to the kinds of Black communities a lot of us heard about growin' up. Living off what you could grow out of the ground, or pull out of the water, self-reliant, close-knit, where your neighbors are family by blood or by bond.

So the Williams brothers and Uncle Russell may not know what the future holds, but they know they always have their family, friends, and the spirit of Pointe à la Hache. And they wouldn't trade any of it for the world.

K. Williams: I love it.

D. Williams: Love it.

Both: We love it. We love it. (LAUGH) I love it.

K. Williams: So--

D. Williams: I love it.'

Russell: Get sand in your gills, you know?

K. Williams: I love it.

Russell: Like a fish in the water. Gotta stay there.

D. Williams: I love it.

Russell: You know?

K. Williams: Our million-dollar chance could come--

Russell: Yep.

K. Williams: --we comin' back.

Russell: Comin' back.

K. Williams: We're comin' back. This is home, you know? This is home, you know? We sleep out here. We come down and we just talk and laugh and have family time and just enjoy the breeze, you know? There's no place like home, you know? I'm gonna be here forever.

Russell: Hopefully.

K. Williams: I'm gonna be here forever.

Russell: Me too. Yep.

D. Williams: I know I ain't going nowhere.

Lee: Follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook using the handle @IntoAmericaPod, or you can Tweet me @TrymaineLee. That's @TrymaineLee, my full name. And if you wanna write to us, our email is IntoAmerica@NBCuni.com. That was IntoAmerica@NBC and the and the letters U-N-I dot-com.

Into America is produced by Sojourner Ahebee, Isabel Angell, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, and Joshua Sirotiak. Original music is by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Aisha Turner. Special thanks to Stefanie Cargill, Gilbert De La Rosa, Michael Hunting, Mark Page, and Percy Phin. I'm Trymaine Lee. See you next Thursday.