Within days, it became apparent that the explosion subsequent oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico required a long-term response that addresses the economic, policy, and mental and physical health needs of rural families and communities whose lives and livelihoods are interdependent with the coastal waters and marshlands. Fisher families in particular were impacted on several levels: the waters on which they depended were inaccessible for fishing; those fishers who volunteered their boats for the clean-up effort were prevented from taking other work even though there was no guarantee their boats would be called; and those fishers whose boats eventually were called were sent out without adequate safety instructions or protective gear. They lost their livelihoods (and many of them lost their health) due to the event, yet getting compensation from the responsible parties would prove daunting.

SMHA tackled head-on the grave injustices done to coastal residents who were undeniably impacted by the oil disaster yet were unable to access the compensation process implemented by BP. Essentially, a private corporation elected to use government documents as “proof” of a family’s or business’s “worthiness” to receive compensation under the plan. SMHA believes a victim should not have to be a “perfect victim” (i.e. with all the federal government/IRS documents in place) in order to be compensated for damages. In the case of the oil disaster, many of the families who took a hard economic “hit” – including most fisher families – are not people who are “good at paper.”

In response, SMHA defaulted to justice and built upon our successful Rural Recovery Response model (link to Rural Recovery here) that successfully created a new type of criteria for participation. SMHA indeed documented the damages sustained by families – we just did not need their three most recent tax returns to do so. SMHA’s criteria were based in community intelligence and a family’s own capacity and desire to participate in its own alternate recovery: criteria that to parallel the government’s frequently oppressive and ineffective criteria.

To help fishers restart businesses while they fought for the compensation they were due, SMHA created an ‘Honor Loan’ as a way to efficiently move capital into the hands of the fisher families who needed it. Louisiana’s fishers, be they Vietnamese, Cajun, Croatian, Creole, or Indigenous, often pride themselves as fiercely independent and self-sufficient people. Instead of grants, which fishers view as “handouts,” SMHA provided loans “on their honor.” Fishers signed a simple one-page document in which they agreed to pay back 90% of the loan amount, if and when she or he was able. This way, fishers viewed repayment of the loan as an opportunity to participate in the recovery of other fishers and an investment of the future of fishing cultures.

In total, SMHA deployed $1,295,483 in grants, loans and “honor loans” to fishers and fisher-related businesses, and the success of the fisher loan program became the basis for establishing the Gulf Coast Fishers Loan Fund (link here). Rather than only providing capital in the wake of disasters, the Gulf Coast Fishers Loan Fund serves as a permanent source of affordable capital that allows fishers to invest in ways that help them adapt to a changing land and climate and their impact on the sector.