Up until four weeks ago, when the Louisiana departments of Wildlife and Fisheries and Health and Hospitals closed the bays and estuaries north of Grand Isle for fishing, Nick Collins was harvesting his select oysters from reefs his great grandfather seeded. Collins, along with his father, Wilbert, and his son, Jaden, was dredging up 65 sacks a day on the family's 2,000 acres of leases, and three times a week, those oysters traveled to Acadiana.
For more than 40 years, the late "Black" Bourque bought his oysters from Wilbert Collins for his restaurant, Black's in Abbeville. When the restaurant closed several years ago, son Brian Bourque continued the relationship with the Collins family, supplying oysters to other restaurants in the area. That supply has run out for the indefinite future.
Today, Nick and Wilbert are keeping busy working on one of their boats, the Broud Tracy, in dry dock while Jaden plays with his dog, Scrappy. Jaden is only 7. But he is well aware that he represents the fifth generation of the Collins family in the oyster business, a tradition that is so endangered by the oil spill in the Gulf that, in bad moments, Nick says he's thinking of moving to Canada. The Beausoleil oysters of the Acadian Peninsula, in New Brunswick, are small, briny and delicious. But they are not Caminada Bay oysters.
That's when Nick, who is rational, calm and articulate about the situation, begins to choke. "When I was a kid, I used to swim with the dolphins right here; I'd feed them silver eel from the nets. It was an awesome place to grow up. It hasn't sunk in yet, to see all this ruined. I can't even think it. But it doesn't look good. I heard the guys from Alaska talk about the Exxon Valdez. Twenty-one years later, there's still oil. It doesn't look good for the fishing industry. And Jaden, he already knows he wants to oyster. What's he going to do?"
Three weeks ago, heavy oil hit the beaches of Grand Isle, the barrier island that protects Caminada Bay, and oil sheen began to seep beyond the island and into the bays. Further to the east, in Plaquemines Parish, heavy oil has invaded marshes.
"We're not seeing it yet here," Nick says of his oyster leases, "but we know it's coming. There's too much oil."
I headed down to Grand Isle with Nick and Jaden to see some of the family's prime oyster reefs in the middle of Caminada Bay.
Driving over the new toll bridge between Leeville and Grand Isle, you can see for miles into the wetlands and the bays. The waters of the Gulf are striped with orange booms. Two days before the Memorial Day weekend, Grand Isle should be packed with fishermen and tourists here for the Grand Isle Redfish Rodeo. The only boats on the water are Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office cruisers taking journalists out to see the oil containment effort. Small knots of National Guardsmen stand around with nothing much to do.
We board the Capt. Nick, which needs a hosing down after idling for over a week. As we leave the dock, the water is spattered with black droplets so small that it looks like a school of squiggling tadpoles has surrounded the lugger. Oil has begun arriving in the bay. Farther out, the water itself is seaglass green, beautiful salty water from the Gulf. It's high tide. Nick drops the dredge for a test, to see what his oysters look like after two weeks of neglect.
The Collins family arrived in Louisiana before the turn of the 20th century. Frederick Collins traveled from Scotland to France, where with the aid of a man remembered only as "a Jewish man named Levy," Frederick took a ship to America. He stepped off the boat at Ellis Island, N.Y. Why he was drawn to Louisiana, Wilbert Collins, 72, currently the patriarch of the Collins family, never found out, but he does know his French-speaking great-grandfather was a judge in Thibodaux sometime in the 1890s. Frederick Collins named his son Levy, in honor of his benefactor.
Levy Collins took to Lafourche Parish like a poule d'eau to water, moving to a community then called Chenier, just west of Grand Isle. He had an innate sense of how to nurture Louisiana's wild oysters.
"My great-grandpa made these reefs in Caminada Bay," says Nick, dredging seeming to trigger the storytelling gene that runs strong in the Collins family. "He tonged up oysters in Thunder Bayou; he felt they were a great oyster, but they had paper shells. He'd row a boat out into the bay and put the oysters on the sand, in the best spots. The bay thickened them up, made a better shell. He started these reefs we're still using now."
Levy Collins sold his oysters from a shed in Chenier until two major hurricanes early in the 20th century pushed the family back from its prime beds. First they went to Leeville, and then to Golden Meadow, about 45 minutes up Bayou Lafourche.
"He'd bring them up to Leeville," Nick says of his ancestor, "in what looked like an old watermelon truck, and sell them by the side of the road; there was no refrigeration in those days. He used the beds, his son (Levy Collins Jr.) did, then my daddy (Wilbert Collins) and now me. It's incredible how well and how long these reefs have sustained us."
Nick throws the winch into reverse, and a dripping net filled with heavy oysters spills onto a steel table built into the boat. Jaden has been impatiently playing with a small tool that is part ax, part pick. When the oysters hit the table, Jaden grabs a cluster and knocks three oysters accreted into "singles."
Nick borrows the tool from his son and pries open an oyster. It's creamy with a hint of seawater green on its frills, the pearl-colored eye firm and round. "Now I'm not going to eat it," Nick says, "but I want you to see how beautiful this is."
Caminada Bay oysters, Nick says, are the creme de la creme of Louisiana's oyster crop. They're flavorful into the summer, when oysters for the most part become thin and milky.
May is spawning season. Oysters are broadcast spawners, the males and females releasing sperm and eggs into the water. The fertilized eggs become larvae. In the larval stage, an oyster floats in the water column feeding and growing for about two weeks. The larvae then sink onto the reefs, attaching themselves to the hard surface bottom or to other oysters. In this small hard-shelled stage, the oysters are called sprats. Oysters feed by opening and closing their shells, filtering plankton and algae from the waters that wash over the reef. It takes two to three years for a sprat to reach market size, a minimum of 3 inches across the shell.
Spawning is a highly vulnerable time for oysters; they are naturally under considerable stress, and the oil spill presents a menace they cannot avoid like other more mobile marine life can.
Once a sprat attaches itself to a reef, it will spend the rest of its life in one spot. Right now, Louisiana's oyster reefs face a triple threat from the spill. If heavy oil washes in and sinks on the reefs, it can smother the oysters, or taint them for an unknown length of time. The chemicals in Corexit, the dispersant used by BP, can potentially kill larvae. Oil and Corexit combined, floating beneath the surface in the water column, also pose an unknown element. And then there is the annual problem of fresh water.
Louisiana's oysters need a salinity level of at least six parts per thousand for larvae to be able to feed and grow. Weeks ago, when the oil spill was still at sea, the state opened up all of its freshwater diversion spillways, sending water from the Mississippi River out across the marshes on both the east and west banks of the river to try to use the strength of the Mississippi's current to keep the spill offshore.
The steady flow of freshwater may be even more devastating to the oyster reefs than the oil. Last week, three areas in lower Lafourche Parish were reading salinity levels ranging from 5.8 to 1.1 parts per thousand. Little Lake, another location of the Collins family leases, was at the low end of the reading. "If the oysters don't get 3.4, and a boost to 8, they get weak, barely opening and closing," says Nick. He's bitter about the quick decision to open the spillways without consulting the oyster fishers. "You're not going to push the oil out," he complains. "It's going to be the biggest oyster kill in the history of the state."
Should entire oyster beds die, the best-case scenario for rebuilding reefs is three years, the amount of time it takes for a sprat to grow to market size. Reseeding can happen immediately for beds killed by fresh water, as long as the salinity level rises. But should the oysters become contaminated by oil, it's an open question as to how long it takes for oysters to filter out the oil residue, or if the reefs die, how long before they are clean enough for lease holders to begin again.
As for the families who historically have built Louisiana's oyster industry, how long can they hold out without a paycheck? With the loss of each business the state also loses the collective knowledge passed down from father to son, as well as a unique culture that has been preserved for more than 200 years.
Oyster beds across the state have been closed, opened and closed again rapidly over the weeks since the BP disaster, as health and wildlife officials react to reports of oil coming into the state's waters. At a meeting of the Louisiana Oyster Task Force, the state's health officer Dr. Jimmy Guidry explained that the most rapid way to detect if oysters have been contaminated by oil is as low tech as it gets: smell the oyster. "Your nose is highly sensitive; smell and taste are the first line of detection," he said. "If an oyster smells bad or tastes bad, then we'll send it to the lab." I decided to try out Dr. Guidry's approach to testing Nick's oysters.
They smelled of the fresh salty air surrounding us. So I went with my instinct and slurped up a fat oyster right off the shell. That's when I really understood Nick's pride and fear for his oyster beds.
The night before, I had eaten a dozen raw oysters in New Orleans that came from beds east of the Mississippi River, which last week were still open to fishing. While they were firm and plump, they had very little taste, as if the fresh water flowing over them had washed out the natural flavor of the oyster as well as the salty brine.
Nick's Caminada Bay oyster was sweet, with a meaty marine flavor and unique mineral notes. And May, as Nick adds, is not high oyster season. "You should try my oysters in November, when they're at their prime."
His pride in my delight lit up his face for a moment. And then, like a wave, I could see the recollection of the present situation wash over his features. "I'm so proud I'm part of this company and the Caminada Bay oysters," he says of his family business. "BP can't put a price on this."