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In New Orleans this past weekend, there were all kinds of protests against BP. But as is customary down in the Big Easy, there was also a big party. The 1st annual New Orleans Oyster Festival was a hit, despite a bleak future for a lot of Louisiana’s fishermen. Oysters are big business in the state — more than $300 million a year. How are oyster beds faring?
By David Weinberg
It’s a nearly cloudless morning and I’m standing on a boat, in Caminada Bay, surrounded by marshlands and pelicans. As 72-year-old Wilbert Collins guides us through the reefs, dolphins appear alongside the boat and I scan the horizon looking for an oil sheen. But all I see is clean water.
Collins is a third-generation oyster fisherman from Lafoush parish. When he started his business over 50 years ago, there were 16 other oyster companies working on this bayou. Today, he’s the only one left.
“Bayou Lafoush was big for oyster boats,” said Collins. “When the steam seasons started after Christmas, we had four, five, six boats passin’ this bayou every day loaded down with oysters to go to the steam factory. Today, not one. Not one of ’em.”
A lot of factors have contributed to the decline of oyster fishing in Louisiana. The canals dug by the oil companies destroyed a lot of the oyster beds; some areas were over fished.
We putter towards a cluster of empty laundry detergent containers bobbing in the distance. These homemade buoys mark the location where Mr. Collins and his sons lease their oyster beds. It’s one of the 70 leases they have throughout this region.
“We travel far, and these boats don’t go more than seven-eight miles an hour, so it takes us a long time to get where were goin’,” said Collins.
When we get to the buoys, Mr. Collin’s son, Nick, lowers a huge metal claw with a net attached into the water and dredges up a load of oysters. His brother Tracy shucks one, hands it to me and points out the still-beating heart before I lower my lips to the shell.
It is the best oyster I’ve ever eaten, plump and salty. No crude has drifted into this bay yet, so it’s safe to eat. But 40 percent of the oyster beds in Louisiana have been closed, including this reef. At the moment, Nick Collins is less concerned about the oil getting into his oyster beds, than the fresh water.
“There’s just too much fresh water, y’know, like that that river water. It’s chocolaty like chocolate milk. It just smothers them,” said Nick Collins.
In order for an oyster to survive, it has to live in just the right mix of fresh and salt water. After the oil started leaking into the Gulf, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, decided to increase the flow of fresh water from a nearby pond into the Gulf in an attempt to push the oil back with fresh water. Nick Collins worries that this could kill all the oysters in a matter of weeks.
“You know, it’s just hard to fathom what’s really happening. All I know for real is that there’s a lotta oil leakin’ in the Gulf, and today started hurricane season, so I don’t know. I don’t know,” said Collins.
Despite the uncertainty facing Louisiana oyster fishermen, the Oyster Festival kicked off this weekend in the French Quarter of New Orleans. A stage was erected in a parking lot beside the Mississippi River and dozens of local restaurants set up booths to show off their signature oyster dishes.
“We’re out here at the Oyster Fest. And really [it] started just as an Oyster Festival, but now with the oil spill, it’s kinda had a whole new meaning for us, so we’re all out here to support the oyster fisherman and the industry,” said Charlie Daroca, who is the CFO/COO at Antoine’s Restaurant. His restaurant was serving oyster and eggplant casserole and baked Alaska for dessert at the festival.
The Oyster Fest has been a labor of love for Sal Sunseri, owner of P & J Oyster company. He originally scheduled the fest for 2005 but had to cancel it because of Katrina. Even with all the setbacks, Sal was in a pretty good mood when I caught up with him at the beer tent.
“We just want people to realize that we’re alive and kicking,” said Sunseri. “We’re having a great time and that we want people to support our city and our state, and most important is to get our coastline replenished so this kind of stuff doesn’t even happen.”
Sunseri hopes that this will be the first of many Oyster Fests to come.
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