Cover Story

The Last Harvest

by Mary Tutwiler

Wednesday, June 2, 2010
Written by Mary Tutwiler
Photos by Isabelle Tutwiler

That oyster you ate probably came from Caminada Bay. We hope you enjoyed it. It may be your last for a long, long time.

Up until three 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...

Wednesday, June 2, 2010
Written by Mary Tutwiler
Photos by Isabelle Tutwiler

That oyster you ate probably came from Caminada Bay. We hope you enjoyed it. It may be your last for a long, long time.

Up until three 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 exquisite oysters traveled to Acadiana.

For more than 40 years, the late "Black" Bourque bought 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 local restaurants where they are the stars of the menu at Shucks!, LA Seafood House, Fezzo's, Hooter's, Dwight's and the Tap Room. That supply has run out for the indefinite future.

Today, Nick and Wilbert are keeping busy working on one of their boats in dry dock, the Broud Tracy, 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 oysters of the Acadian Peninsula, in New Brunswick, called Beausoliel, 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?"

Nick Collins and his son, Jaden, inspect a test drag of the
family's oyster beds after a hiatus of two weeks. The clump
in the foreground is oysters covered with snail eggs.
Untended beds are attacked by parasites like the snails,
which drill into the oysters and kill them.

Two 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 already invaded marshes.
"We're not seeing it yet here," says Nick of his oyster leases, "but we know it's coming. There's too much oil."

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, looking lost, 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 who is only remembered as "a Jewish man named Levy," Frederick took ship for America. He stepped off the boat at Ellis Island, New York. 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 down to a community then called Chenier, just to the 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."

Top to bottom: Nick Collins opens oysters; Jaden Collins,
7, is already an old hand on board the oyster lugger;
when the sack is flipped over the Collins Oyster Co. sign,
it means there are no oysters to sell.

Levy Collins sold his oysters from an oyster shed in Chenier until two major hurricanes early in the 20th century pushed the family back, first to Leeville, and then to Golden Meadow, about 45 minutes up Bayou Lafourche, from his prime beds.

"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 accreted oysters 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," says Nick, "but I want you to see how beautiful this is."

Caminada Bay oysters, says Nick, are the creme de la creme of Louisiana's oyster crop, 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, the 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 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.

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 bank 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 invasion of oil. Last week, three areas in lower Lafourche Parish were reading salinity levels of 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, without consulting the oyster fishers, to open the spillways. "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."

Wilbert Collins today, and in 1951 at age 14 (at far left, holding fish), when he won the Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo with a big redfish.

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 the 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 have historically 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 preserved for more than 200 years.

Oyster beds across the state have been closed, opened and closed again rapidly over the past four weeks, as health and wildlife officials react to reports of oil coming into the state's waters. At a meeting last week of the Louisiana Oyster Task Force, the state's health officer, Dr. Jimmy Guidry, explained that the most rapid way to detect if oysters had been contaminated by oil was 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 the 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.

Caminada Bay oysters are in the path of the oil slick.

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."

Best Case Scenario?
A hurricane in the oily Gulf may be just what we need.

Written by Walter Pierce

Hurricane season began Tuesday, casting even more uncertainty on the resolution to what has become the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Estimates last week were that the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster released as few as 17 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and as many as 30 million gallons, easily eclipsing the 11 million gallons spilled in the 1989 grounding of the Exxon Valdez in Prince William Sound, Alaska. But while a hurricane raking across the Gulf with all that oil still in a relatively confined area off the coast presents a lot of X factors, it could help expedite the inevitable and actually mitigate the toxic assault on our wetlands.

"A lot of it is speculative on what it's going to do," admits KATC Chief Meteorologist Rob Perillo, who has been tracking and analyzing Gulf Coast storms for a quarter century and who sees a silver lining in the eye wall of a potential hurricane. "Obviously, a lot of it is going to disperse the oil - you're going to have wind, rough seas; it's just like the dispersant: It doesn't make it go away, it's just spreading out the love across a larger area."

Just like the dispersant, but non-toxic, natural.

"If you have an oil slick that's covering - pick a number - a thousand acres out in the Gulf, and a storm comes with the big waves and it busts it up, now instead of a thousand acres out in the Gulf, it's covering a million acres of coastal Louisiana," adds Mark Shirley, an LSU Ag Center agent based in Abbeville. "So, it's going to spread out into such a thin film, it may not be recognizable. It may be there in just a very minute amount in the midst of everything else that is impacted, the mud and all that, you may not even see it."
But microbes - invisibly tiny organisms indigenous to the Gulf that feed on oil and are being genetically modified in laboratories to deal with future oil spills - will see it. And ultimately, writes David Biello for Scientific American, the microbes will do the heavy lifting in cleaning up the spill in the long term.

Meanwhile, a hurricane or tropical storm in Gulf could offer additional benefits.

"With some really big waves and rough weather, storms actually aerate the whole water column of the Gulf of Mexico," Shirley says. "When you have these 20- and 30-foot waves building up offshore, all that turbulence does add oxygen." And, he adds, all those microbes dining away on the oil will need oxygen - the churn of a storm will help provide it as they gorge themselves.
But both Shirley and Perillo acknowledge that the Deepwater Horizon spill places us in new territory, and much of this is speculation. Wishful thinking, maybe.

"You're talking about something that is unprecedented, and no one really can venture how impactful it may be," says the meteorologist, who predicts a busy 2010 hurricane season. "[A storm] may turn out to be something of a boon. We're going to have to deal with oil out there one way or another, and if we can't scoop it up we're going to have to disperse it, and that means you're going to have toxicity levels of your water spread out over a much larger area. How toxic will it be? At what point is the turning point? How dispersed does this stuff have to be in order to not make a significant impact on the environment?"

Those are the $64,000 questions.

Hurricanes are relatively uncommon in the early months of the season, and, as Shirley points out, June 1 is more or less an arbitrary date. "It's not like duck season or deer season where as soon as the season opens you have activity," he says. "Generally it's going to be later, in August, September and October."

One clear drawback to a hurricane early in the season is the disruption it would cause to the human intervention under way right now; there are thousands of people on the coast and offshore, along with hundreds of vessels, battling the slick. A hurricane or tropical storm would present a logistical challenge.
Regardless of the timing of a storm, Perillo says we should brace ourselves - the storms will come.

"I would pretty much be willing to put money down that it will be busier than last year, probably twice as busy in the Atlantic Basin, and pure statistics tell us that there's going to be more activity in the Gulf of Mexico," Perillo says with a sigh. "Everybody's going to be included in the mix this year."

"As bad a catastrophe as it is," Shirley says of the spill, "at least the people especially in Plaquemines, St. Bernard, Lafourche parishes impacted by the oil, at least their houses aren't under water and destroyed. We have communications and power; we can work in an air-conditioned command center to plot all this stuff - a lot of infrastructure and everything is working. Whereas in a storm, we're still trying to clear the roads just to get down there. Yeah, this is a catastrophic event, but storms, hurricanes can be a lot worse."

Ultimately, the Gulf Coast shouldn't be worried so much about hurricanes and an oil slick as it should simply about hurricanes.