Report from the Gulf

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  August 10, 2010
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FUTURE IMPERFECT So far, chef Susan Spicer’s restaurant is getting by without much of the local seafood customers expect. To be safe, however, she’s filed a class-action suit against BP on behalf of Gulf Coast eateries, just in case the shrimp, crab, and oysters never come back.

'I think we're in trouble'
It's a Wednesday morning in Golden Meadow, Louisiana, a small town straddling Bayou Lafourche about two hours south of New Orleans.

Wilbert Collins, 72, leads a visitor through a house his family has owned for years, on a small patch of land along Route 1. His son, Levy Collins III, and grandson, Levy Collins IV, are camped out here for the time being. They've been drifting from place to place since Katrina destroyed their home in nearby Grand Isle, carrying away Bibles and family photos.

In the living room, a fading picture of a boat loaded with tens of thousands of oysters hangs on one wall. And on another, a large wall map details the bays and bayous of southeastern Louisiana.

Wilbert can't see as well as he once did, but he has little trouble pointing out some of the oyster reefs the family leases from the state. Parts of Grand Bayou. A piece of Snail Bay. And here, just before the water opens into the gulf, the most prized of all — in Caminada Bay.

"They're not big leases," he says, a Cajun lilt to his voice. "But they're solid."

The Caminada reefs have been in the family since the 1930s. For five generations, the clan has hauled oysters from their private leases and wild reefs to the bay, where the mollusks grow plump in currents that have made them some of the most sought-after in the region.

A restaurateur from Colorado comes down twice a year to load up on the Collins quarry. Local hunters planning visits to Mississippi lodges are told they aren't welcome unless they come bearing a sack of the family's oysters. On Super Bowl Sunday, locals line up for hours to buy product from a beat-up, silver trailer on Route 1 that accounts for more than half the Collins clan's sales.

"When you eat one of my Caminada oysters," Wilbert says, "you can't have just one."

It's been two months, though, since a Collins oyster tested anyone's willpower. Wilbert's son Nick spotted oil on the bay in late May. It didn't take long for the state to close Caminada and a series of lakes and bayous to the north, known collectively as oyster harvesting Area 13.

The family's boats — the Captain Wilbert, Captain Nick, and Broud and Tracy — are working for BP now: hauling plastic goggles and fresh boom out to oil skimmers, bringing back old, oil-drenched barriers to shore.

Wilbert, sitting at his kitchen table with a Marlboro in hand, says he is happy to have the work. He is, in fact, quite generous in his attitude toward BP. "I'm not angry," he says. "It's an accident."

Oystering was a struggle in these parts even before the Deepwater Horizon oil rig blew. A couple of decades ago, there were 16 oystering operations between Golden Meadow and nearby Larose, each running three or four boats. Now the Collins clan stands alone: up before dawn, out on the water, trawling and trawling and trawling.

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