"Of course the oyster grounds which include Grand Lake, Snail Bay and Bayou Saint Denis are fine oysters, but they don’t taste the same as the Caminada’s"
Life has changed for 4th generation Oyster Farmer, Captain Wilbert Collins, ever since April 20, 2010. The Deepwater Horizon catastrophe has changed the lives of many Louisianan’s from different walks of life, but for Captain Wilbert, his children and grandchildren the prospect of a flourishing Oyster Business as it was, seems far reaching now.
His son’s, Nick, Levy, and Paul, weathered by years of heaving sacks of oysters since before they could legally drive, are rightfully concerned about their future. The areas of production were once considered the “World’s finest oyster,” the Caminada Bay Oyster, which always offered the perfect balance of fresh and salty sea flavors for consumers throughout the region. Through the changes of environment since the spill, Caminada has had too much of a fresh water influence, killing production and natural flavors.
“Of course the oyster grounds which include Grand Lake, Snail Bay and Bayou Saint Denis are fine oysters, but they don’t taste the same as the Caminada’s,” Wilbert said.
The family business is really only providing their oysters for retail right now. “Customers want more, restaurants want ‘em, dealers want ‘em, and during Thanksgiving and Christmas, people fight over ‘em. Wilbert reminisces, “yeh, it’s not like the old days when it was nothing to load two trailers a week for P&J in the City.”
In the 70’s, the Collin’s Family used to sell quite a bit of their oysters to Black’s Seafood Restaurant in Abbeville. Brian Bourque was the proprietor of that restaurant and would only get oysters from Captain Wilbert. Brian boasted, “That’s all we get, nothing tastes better than the ones they grow. That’s why my customers always come back.”
The most prized oysters on Collins' Caminada reefs this season were harvested in the fall from public grounds in Black Bay and from their private leases in Snail Bay. They were replanted in Caminada, where the nutrient-rich waters work like a naturally occurring marinade as the oysters reach plump adulthood. The cultivation process is, according to Times Picayune’s Brett Anderson, “the molluscan corollary to a rancher feeding corn to cattle in the weeks leading up to slaughter. It is also laborious, and it exposes the oysters to an ecosystem swarming with predators who appreciate the oysters as much as the Collins’ paying customers.
The oyster business is not the easiest thing to get into, much less survive in for over four generations. First you have to lease the grounds from the State. Nurture those grounds by building up your reefs with cultch (clam shell – oyster shell – lime stone – other rock.) Then you have to seed – plant onto the reefs, most of the time traveling on the other side of the river to load from the State reefs, and then wait for the oysters to grow. But in that time, challenges do arise: predation from drum fish and snails – thievery – hurricanes – tornado’s - fresh water diversions – drought – red tide – State and Federal regulations – attrition (who wants to keep doing this type of hard work) and of course oil and gas issues.
Captain Wilbert is no longer working on the boat, but Nick and Levy are still at it. The future is uncertain, but their love and passion to produce great oysters is in their blood.
Maybe you’ll have a chance to see the family at the Oyster Fest in New Orleans.
Ask them if they entered a monster sized oyster in the “Biggest Oyster Contest.”