By Claire Layrisson
Dusk is falling on the career of Lafourche oysterman Wilbert Collins.
At 73, he should be enjoying the fruits of his proud and productive life, passing his business to his sons in anticipation of retirement – if, in fact, a true oysterman ever really retires.
Instead, over the past year he’s watched helplessly as oil from the BP spill crept into the bayous, and as the diversions of fresh water used to flush it out decimated his beds. Then came the claims process, with endless paperwork and bureaucratic runaround, and finally, the shuttering of his generations-old company.
Fortune once smiled on Wilbert Collins. His Collins Oyster Co. in Golden Meadow produced the best oysters around, especially those harvested from Caminada Bay. During holidays, a traffic cop directed customers’ cars as they lined up on Hwy 1, having traveled far and wide to buy from the Collins Oyster Co. Perhaps the grandest accolade was a phone call from the fastidious Andre Soltner of the five-star restaurant Lutece in New York, who declared, “This is the best oyster I’ve ever tasted.”
But fortune is fickle, and oystermen are a uniquely vulnerable lot. Unlike fishermen and shrimpers who can follow the catch when disaster strikes, oystermen lack that mobility, remaining firmly planted near their beds. Reliant on a delicate balance of salinity, the massive diversions proved overwhelming for the bivalves – and for the Collins Oyster Co.
Today, while the demand for Collins’s oysters remains strong, the supply is nonexistent. “The people are still calling,” he says, “but I don’t have nothing.”
As a boy of 8 selling oysters from under a shady tree to motorists on the highway, Collins dreamt of distinguishing himself in the only job he ever desired.
“I wanted to be the biggest oysterman on the bayou,” he says. “Those were my thoughts 55 years ago.”
In better days, there were 16 oyster companies in a 15-mile area. Now he’s the last one there, a distinction too unnerving for the young Collins to ever have imagined. Nor could his sons, two of whom Collins had to lay off recently along with all the company’s other employees, many of them relatives.
“For a daddy to say, ‘Well, look fellas, there’s no more money in the company…’” he says. “It’s really sad.”
Facing such loss, Collins feels forlorn and forgotten. Gone are the clean-up jobs with BP’s vessels of opportunity, the flurry of international reporters, the horror prompted by 24-hour news coverage of the gushing well.
Also gone, or so it seems, is any follow-through on promises made by state and federal governments.
“When this happened, the President came down here and said, ‘We going to take care of fishermen,’ and as soon as it was finished, you don’t see them no more,” says Collins. “They forgot about us, and that’s the hardest thing, I think.”
Reimbursement funds slowed to a trickle. Collins understands the administrative nightmare Kenneth Feinberg took on – “He don’t know if he’s coming or going” – but since the spill czar arrived, Collins has received a mere $4,200.
Savvy to the ways of the bayou, where business is often based on reputation and a handshake, the impersonal distribution process bewilders Collins. And how can such devastation be reduced to notes on a form?
“I offered to show all my dead oysters,” he says. “They don’t want to see it.” On a trip to Washington, D.C., Collins, who says he had little formal education, told Feinberg directly, “The paperwork you want, we’re not smart enough to do.”
Weary of the hollow words from Washington, Collins has lawyered up. But no amount of money can buy lost time, so even remuneration will be bittersweet.
“I love my life. I love my fishing,” he says. “I loved it.”
Now Collins faces years of uncertainty before oysters come back, by which time, he acknowledges, “I’ll be pretty old.”
With the first anniversary of the spill on the horizon, it’s a precarious time in the oyster industry. The options for Collins – and his oysters – are limited. “I’m a very small person that’s easy to forget about,” he says. “So that’s about it. We just have to wait and see what happens.”