The Aristocrat, Caminada Bay, Beauregard and Champagne Bay oysters are changing the playing field for a Gulf oyster industry in decline since Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon spill. These off-bottom caged Louisiana oysters join others in Alabama as the first commercial success stories for farm raised oysters grown in off-bottom cages, breathing new life into the industry.
A few years ago Jim Gossen, Chairman of Sysco Louisiana Seafood, gave a talk to a group of Gulf oystermen. Showing them a box filled with east and west coast oysters, he told them, “these oysters are three times better than yours, and they must be because they are getting more than three times the price.”
“They sure didn’t like what I was saying,” emphasized Gossen, a Gulf Seafood Institute Board Member from Texas. “I told them that it was time to start searching for a solution on how Gulf oysters could compete with smaller, prettier oysters from the coasts.”
Off-Bottom Cage System
Using a new off-bottomed system pioneered by East Coast oyster growers, Gossen joined with longtime oysterman and friend Jules Melancon to form Caminada Bay Oyster Farm on his beloved Grand Isle.
“The process is relatively simple,” said Melancon. “You take pinhead sized oyster seed called “spat” from hatcheries and grow them in barrels until they reach a size where they can’t fall through a half-inch wire cage. We place the off-bottom cages in areas where oysters have historically grown for centuries around the island.”
Over a period of approximately one year, he grows the oysters to the consumer-preferred size of approximately two and half to four inches. The cage systems are no different from other oysters grown in the same water with the same salinity, but when harvested he sells them at premium prices because of the taste and the size uniformity.
“The beauty of this system is that we can grow a high quality oyster in the wild where and when we want, as well as to the size we want”, said Jules Melancon in his deep Cajun accent. “The amount of time required for an oyster to mature into a harvestable size also is cut in half.”
A fourth general oysterman, he was in the process of selling his oyster boat when Gossen convinced him to take a trip to Alabama’s Auburn University Shellfish Lab to view the new farming method.
The process of growing oysters from seed in this manner changed his views altogether, as he told his friend, “If you can sell them, I can grow them.” Gossen in turn replied, “If you can grow them, I can sell them.”
A majority of Gulf oysters are harvested with a dredge or tongs. Only about 35 percent of oysters “planted” on the bottom are harvested, the rest falling prey to predators or Mother Nature. More than 85% of caged grown oysters reach a harvestable size.
“Our oysters are harvested by hand. We raise the cage to the surface and select only oysters of the desired size,” said Melancon who currently has more than 350 cages filled with oysters. “We select the appropriate sized oysters and return the others to the cage, it’s a beautiful sight and you know you have even more to harvest in the future.”
Travelling around the world Gossen has frequented places like France and New York, places that used to supply a majority of the worlds oyster. “People always tell me we used to have oysters here, but they are gone now,” he said. “I always told myself that can’t happen in the Gulf, but it has. Off-bottom grown oysters is the future if the Gulf continues to follow the fate of other historic oyster producing regions.”
Benefits of Off-Bottom Oysters
According to a study done by Auburn’s Shellfish Lab, research analysis has shown positive external benefits resulting from habitat provided by Gulf of Mexico off-bottom mariculture. Commercial and recreational fisheries also see a benefit from the additional habitat.
State fisheries experts have promoted off-bottom cultivation as a way to diversify the Louisiana oyster industry. Due to coastal erosion, once productive oyster growing areas are now too salty for oyster production, but can be prime spots for off-bottom cultivation. “This is an opportunity to increase oyster production of coastal areas changed by the state’s coastal erosion crisis,” said Melancon.
The Grand Isle native hopes to expand his operation to Independence Island where he has a family lease of more than 100 acres. “The island is by far the best place for oysters. It is area too salty for oysters to reproduce but a great place for them to grow,” he told Gulf Seafood News. “I would like to start leasing out part of my area to others interested in oyster off bottom aquaculture.”
“Oyster mariculture is perfect for a young person, or someone interested in getting started in the business,” said Gossen watching Melancon open a cage of oysters. “This alternative way to grow oysters is an opportunity to learn the business from the ground up, even if it is only a part-time hobby.”
With the assistance Louisiana State University’s Sea Grant Oyster Research Center, the Grand Isle Port Commission has also set aside an area for off-bottom oyster farming. Off-bottom systems use racks, cages, rafts or long lines to suspend the young oysters in the water. According to Dr. John Supan, oyster specialist with Sea Grant, these types of systems have been extremely successful in other parts of the world. Currently there are three growers harvesting in the Port area.
Off-bottom oyster farming has been tremendously successful everywhere it has been put in practice on both U.S. coasts and in the Gulf. According to Gossen, off-bottom oyster farmers still have many obstacles to overcome but the benefits are there. The Grand Isle model could open the door for other coastal communities to establish marine enterprise zones and create job opportunities.
Melancon’s caged oysters are not for everyone at the moment, especially businesses thriving on high volume, but he hopes that soon changes so customers will have chance to taste his oysters. He has been approached about shipping his harvest to China, a country that loves a salty oyster.
“My son is harvesting oysters a whole new way than how I did it,” said Jules’ father oysterman Loyman Melacon. “The old ways of oyster fishing is dying, hurricanes have made the barrier islands disappear and now salt water is everywhere we used to harvest oysters. I am very proud of him.”
“Our target audiences are high-end oyster bars or an exclusive steak house looking for a unique and tasty appetizer,” said Gossen. “We are our proud of the relationship we have established with Chef Ryan Prewitt at Peche in New Orleans, a James Beard Award winning Chef and Restaurant. It is important for chefs and restaurants to support this new enterprise so those entering into this exciting new world of aquaculture can see a clear future for the business.”