by Colleen Rush/Louisiana Seafood News
At the ripe age of 12, Sherbin Collette was running a boat solo and pulling hoop nets filled with wild catfish from the Atchafalaya Basin – an early start to his career as a commercial fisherman and the owner of Collette’s Seafood in Henderson, La.
Now in his 60s, Collette is the mayor of Henderson, but his newest role as the wild caught catfish representative for the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board will draw heavily from decades spent making a living on the water.
Top on Collette’s agenda of recommendations for the board: resuscitate the wild catfish industry in Louisiana by putting fishermen back to work catching the wild-caught fish.
Wild-Caught Catfish, A Sustainable Species
“The bottom fell out ten years ago when cheap imported catfish started coming in from Asia and it hasn’t recovered – fishermen stopped catching it,” said Collette. “At best, fishermen break even selling wild catfish, but even then, they cannot make a living at it.”
The brutal competition with cheap imported catfish chased many commercial fishermen out of the business, said Collette, but there’s still a demand for wild catfish and an abundant supply of them in Louisiana’s waterways. In 2011, over four and a half million pounds of wild catfish were caught commercially, raking in $2.3 million in sales for the state. But that number pales in comparison to the amount of imported catfish flooding the U.S. market: around 204 million pounds in 2011.
To encourage more fishermen to go back to catching wild catfish, Collette envisions building a processing plant where commercial fishermen can sell their catch. The plant would turn around and supply hospitals, schools and other state-run entities with processed wild catfish at a lower-than-market rate – a win-win for the state and fishermen: The state would save money buying wild catfish at a discounted rate and a processing plant would put a lot of people back to work, said Collette.
“The processing plant would create new jobs, and I know a lot of people would go back to fishing,” says Collette.
Species Part of State’s Unique Culture
Collette’s vision for the wild catfish industry is more than just a financial one – he sees it as a means for preserving the state’s unique cultural identity for the future. Likening the entire fishing industry’s plight to the decline of French-speaking Louisiana natives -once upon a time, they were punished for speaking French and did not teach younger generations the language, Collette says the deep heritage of fishing in Louisiana could be lost to future generations without support.
“The government has been so focused on oil money. They left fishing out of the big picture and now this valuable way of life that’s part of our culture is dying,” said Collette. “Something has to be done to preserve our identity, our way of life.”
Building the commercial fish processing plant is one way of encouraging and ensuring a viable industry for future generations, said Collette. “We have to have a long-term plan – to use the BP money coming our way to not just fix problems today, but look to the future and have a plan to support this vital industry for generations to come.”
Collette also sees the importance in educating consumers about the issues with imported, farmed catfish, which are not subjected to the same, rigorous safety standards in place in the United States and are sold at rock-bottom prices. Today, imported catfish can cost as little as $2 per pound, versus $5 per pound for wild catfish, and budget-conscious consumers might not understand the difference in quality when they opt for the cheaper product, said Collette.
Imported Catfish Untested
“Only a small percentage of the catfish imported to the U.S. is actually tested for banned chemicals,” said Collette. “The consumer doesn’t really know what they’re getting in farmed Asian catfish, which is the majority of what you find in markets now.
In contrast, Louisiana wild catfish is the best in the country, said Collette. “It’s clean, it’s healthy, we know exactly where it came from and there are no chemicals to worry about because it’s wild-caught. Our seafood is by far the best in the country – you can’t get better than what we have here in Louisiana.”
Collette didn’t set out to get involved in politics or to be an advocate for the wild catfish industry. If he had his way, he’d be out in the Atchafalaya Basin every day pulling hoop nets to keep up with the demand for wild catfish at his own small processing facility. But as a commercial fisherman who has struggled to make a living, and watched friends, family and neighbors suffer the same fate, Collette saw no alternative but to get involved and bring his expertise and ideas to the table.
“Being mayor is my first priority, but the only dream I had all my life was to be a fisherman,” said Collette. “It’s too late for me do it full-time now. I couldn’t make a living. My job now is to do my best to get fishermen the support they need to get back to the fishing industry, back to the work they love.”