Since she learned to talk, Thu Bui has been a voice for her family and the community in which she was raised.
As the first child of Vietnamese immigrants in coastal Louisiana, Bui has been a translator — and an advocate — for the men and women who came here to make a living from the water.
She didn’t plan on working for the LSU AgCenter and Louisiana Sea Grant. But she was a natural fit.
“To me it was a natural transition to be an extension agent,” said Bui, who is an associate fisheries extension agent. “I didn’t know everything an extension agent did. Then I found out it was everything I was already doing.”
Bui was initially hired to help connect the Vietnamese fishing community in St. Mary, Iberia and Vermilion parishes with Sea Grant and AgCenter agents.
Along with Mark Shirley, a longtime Sea Grant and AgCenter agent, Bui has become embedded in the south Louisiana fishing world. As a team they have reached those who may have been overlooked before, Shirley said.
“Thu probably has a greater understanding of knowledge of the shrimp industry than I do,” said Shirley, who is an aquaculture and coastal resources specialist. “She grew up in it.”
Bui’s story begins well before her birth. After the Vietnam War and the fall of the South Vietnamese government in 1975, thousands of Vietnamese fled the country by boat and eventually resettled in the United States or one of a handful of other countries.
Her parents were among the “boat people” who made it to the Philippines, where a camp was established for refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. She was born there in 1981.
After a year or so, her family was resettled in North Carolina, where Bui’s father worked in a clothing factory.
“You can imagine coming to the United States,” Bui said. “A different language, not knowing anyone and pretty much you’re an alien put on another planet.”
A fisherman back in Vietnam, her father had heard of Vietnamese communities that popped up along the Gulf Coast where fishing jobs were plentiful. When Bui was 3, the family moved to Abbeville, where her father began working as a deckhand on a shrimp boat and her mother worked in shrimp, crawfish and fish processing plants.
At that time in the early 1980s, Shirley was a new fisheries agent. The majority of the shrimp fleet then was owned by Louisiana natives, mostly white men.
“The Anglo fishermen were getting old and retiring and selling their boats,” Shirley said. “As these boats became available, this younger crowd of Vietnamese fishermen were able to step up and fill that void.”
The Vietnamese fishers would pool their money to buy a boat, then loan money to others, Bui said. Soon, her father had his first boat with a partner. Then he owned it outright.
After learning English, Bui became a liaison for her parents, then her community. She would translate from the time she was in elementary school, and by the time she was 13, she was meeting the family’s accountant to do their taxes.
After she graduated from LSU with a degree in biological sciences, Bui worked in Intracoastal City on the dock owned by her husband’s family, helping them run their business buying shrimp and selling it to the processors.
There Shirley first met her and tried to recruit her to work for Sea Grant and the AgCenter to help with the Vietnamese fishing community.
“For him it was hard,” Bui said. “He didn’t know the language. He has been around for a while, but the Vietnamese folks didn’t really understand what extension was.”
Some Vietnamese fishers didn’t trust that the Sea Grant and AgCenter agents were there to help, Shirley said.
“The government in Vietnam was there to regulate them and, in many ways, extort money from them,” he said.
A year or so after Shirley first recruited her, in 2007, Bui became an extension agent with the AgCenter and Sea Grant. She was six months’ pregnant, and, at first, she was the sole female Sea Grant agent.
“I wasn’t your normal extension agent,” Bui said. “But I was hired to work with a nontraditional group to begin with.”
Bui was more than just a translator, Shirley said. She knew how to reach across the cultural divide. When she first began organizing meetings, Bui would call her father to ask advice. He would tell her, for example, how to first approach a respected elder and allow him to spread the word. That was the key to getting others to attend meetings.
Bui also understood the fishing community’s inclination to stay quiet and refrain from questions.
“They came from a time when there was a war, and if you were too outspoken, you probably didn’t live,” she said. “It was a survival mechanism that you couldn’t be too vocal.”
Bui has served on the Coast Guard’s Commercial Fishing Vessel Safety Advisory Committee and helped eliminate barriers to safety. She helped create safety materials for the Vietnamese community, teaming with other agencies and a university in Texas and teaching hands-on safety classes with a simulator — a boat cabin where crews can practice signaling other vessels. She also learned that many of the crew members were uncomfortable making mayday calls in English, so she created drill programs to practice.
After the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf, Bui stayed on the radio, helping crews know what latitudes and longitudes were closed to fishing. Also, she and Shirley organized the first meetings for fishers after the spill.
“She’s not just an asset to the Vietnamese fishermen,” Shirley said. “The Anglo fishermen really appreciate her efforts.”
But she has also helped the Vietnamese fishing community communicate with the government and researchers. They have decades of experience on the water both in Vietnam and Louisiana, Bui said, and she is learning from them and passing that knowledge on.
“They may not have education, but they definitely know a lot about fishing that sometimes doesn’t get captured in books,” Bui said.
Bui is learning more every day. She is finishing her thesis for a master’s degree in fisheries management at LSU.
While Bui never considered becoming an extension agent growing up, she said her family is proud of the work she does.
“My dad always told me it didn’t matter what I did as long as I was some good to society,” she said. “I may not be a doctor, lawyer or engineer, but I was a member of the community. As a younger person in the community, I’m respected. My job with Sea Grant has solidified that role.”
Kyle Peveto is an assistant communications specialist with AgCenter Communications and assistant editor of Louisiana Agriculture.
(This article appears in the fall 2018 issue of Louisiana Agriculture magazine.)
Thu Bui stands on the deck of one of her father’s shrimping boats, the Miss Thu Taho II, which is named for Thu Bui and a sister. Bui is deeply immersed in the south Louisiana Vietnamese fishing community. Photo by Kyle Peveto
LSU AgCenter and Louisiana Sea Grant fisheries agent Thu Bui, left, provided Vietnamese translation for members of a Coast Guard rescue team demonstrating rescue techniques at the 2015 Louisiana Fisheries Forward Seafood Summit in Houma, Louisiana. Photo by Bruce Schultz