By Veronica Del Bianco
For the Croatian American Vujnovich family, oyster farmer is more than an occupation. It is way of life that rewards hard work, determination, and calculated risk. Lessons and values that are taught out on the water while the family works side by side. It is the loss of this way of life, not the loss of income, that the Vujnovichs mourn. It is the loss of a way of life for which BP cannot and will not compensate.
This summer the fourth generation of the Vujnovich family, cousins Cullen Vujnovich, 21, and Jeremy Vujnovich, 20, had a serious stake in the family’s business and were planning to work on the boat for college money.
Since the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, they have had to find alternative occupations. They tried to get work with BP’s Vessels of Opportunity program without success.
“I wish that they’d hire more commercial fishermen around here for the oil spill. They’ve hired a lot of out of state. People that don’t have nothing to do with this,” says Jeremy who had to take a job at a plant.
The BP oil spill did not just change the summer plans of these young men, but also their thoughts on their future as the next generation of oyster farmers.
“When you see something like this take away your job and your industry for a while you kind of have to have a back up plan,” says Cullen.
Croatians from the Dalmatian coast, like the parents of Eva Jurisich Vujnovich, 81, the cousins’ grandmother, have a long history in the oyster industries of southeastern Louisiana.
Eva spent her first eight years at her family’s fishing camp in Bayou La Shoot, an isolated Croatian community without a school, and says that, unlike her grandsons, most people did not have a choice in becoming oyster farmers.
“We got in it and stayed in it,” says Eva.
“I don’t know how we lived,” she says. “You never went to the grocery store then. You’d go to New Orleans and buy a sack of beans, a sack of rice, some spaghetti and some hard tack bread. Maybe olive oil and some dried meet. Then you’d go to your camp and live for a month. We never were hungry. We always had food.”
The Vujnovichs view their Croatian ancestors as the equivalent of the Mexican immigrants of today.
“One of the reasons they could get into the oyster industry back then was because it was such a hard, brutal way of life nobody really wanted it,” says Peter Vujnovich, Jr. “One family would establish themselves and then they’d need extra hands so they’d send to the old country.”
Peter Vujnovich, Sr., and his brother were two of those able to establish themselves. They founded Vujnovich Brothers seafood business which was later renamed Capt. Pete’s Oysters because it sounded more American. Peter Jr. ran the business, Located located at 1731 Rampart Street in New Orleans, until its destruction in Hurricane Katrina.
Over the decades, the Vujnovichs have seen the oyster industry evolve with the edition of new technologies like refrigeration and cell phones – but the in the minds of Peter Jr. and his sister Ana Nash the greatest innovation of them all was as simple as a table.
“When you first started doing oysters you had a little bench,” says Nash, age 54. “And, they would take the drudge and put the oysters on the bench for culling [sorting].”
She squats like a frog, demonstrating the awkward position that they would sit in for hours as children helping their parents work. “Then someone thought to put a table on the boat so you could stand and cull. I don’t know why it took that long to figure out,” she laughs.
Now a mother herself, Nash appreciates what her children have learned growing up in a family of oyster farmers.
“It teaches them responsibility, safety, you have to make decisions, you have to take risks,” says Nash. “They learn appreciation for nature, tolerance for living without things like air conditioning, and they learn to cook. And they learn all that at a young age.”
When asked what they eat while out on the boat, two generations of Vujnovich men exclaim in unison, “Steak!”
As BP promises to financially compensate Louisiana fishermen for their loss of income due to fishery closures resulting from the oil spill, there will be no compensation for families like the Vujnovichs who are losing a way of life. There is no monetary value for the priceless moments of a family working together.