by Mark Evans/Newsroom Ink
A project demonstrating an alternative way to grow oysters, using off-bottom systems, has launched in the waters off of Grand Isle. If successful, the project could spark new interest in oyster farming and provide a new source for oysters consumed by the half-shell.
Off-bottom systems use racks, cages, rafts or longlines to suspend young oysters in the water instead of planting them on oyster reefs or the sea bottom for them to mature.
Dr. John Supan, oyster specialist with the Louisiana State University Sea Grant Program, said these types of systems have been extremely successful in other parts of the world. For example, a new industry has developed in Cedar Key, Fla., around clam farming using the off-bottom technique.
“I’ve seen this work for clams in high-density lease areas,” he said. “It’s a big winner over there and has turned into a big moneymaker in Florida, growing into a $35-million industry in just 12 years.”
Supan has been working since 2004 on a Louisiana project to use off-bottom systems to farm oysters. He had hoped to have the project up and running long ago, but Hurricane Katrina put a kink in the plans when it wiped out the state’s oyster hatchery.
Creating Enterprise Zones
It took a change in Louisiana law to allow for the creation of the first “marine enterprise zone,” an area of coastal water designated and permitted for certain farming activities, such as oyster farming.
The state of Louisiana created a map of areas suitable for aquaculture activities that avoid areas needed for other priority purposes, such as navigation or oil and gas production.
Supan worked with the Grand Isle Port Commission to have 25 acres of coastal water off of Grand Isle designated as a marine enterprise zone – the first in the state. It will be used for eight, two-acre oyster farms with navigation lanes in between for farmers. By the end of November, he said, oysters will be in off-bottom cages at the site.
Off-bottom oyster culturing offers many benefits, he said. Because oyster farmers no longer have to rely on finding suitable sea bottom, off-bottom farming opens up many new locations where oysters can thrive. It also can increase oyster yield.
“If you don’t have good sea bottom, then you’re wasting half of the oysters as soon as they go over the side of the boat during planting,” Supan said.
That’s because typically only about 35 percent of oysters “planted” on the bottom are harvested, he said. The rest fall prey to predators or Mother Nature, or they may land upside-down when they settle on the bottom. In that case, they quickly smother and die soon after they are thrown into the water over muddy water bottoms.
The Caged Oyster
The new growing method caught the attention of Jules Malacon, a fourth generation oysterman who was on the brink of getting out of the business.
Taking pinhead size seed called spat from hatcheries, he grows young oysters on land in barrels till they reach a size that won’t fall through a ½ inch wire cage.
“We have a local crab trap manufacturer in Des Allemands make cages we have designed for the project,” said Malacon. “The cage keeps predators from getting to the oysters while allowing them to grow in the wild.”
“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.”
Working with the port commission on Grand Island, as well as the LSU Sea Grant Oyster Research Lab, the operation current growing in is six different areas; Independence Island, Barateria bay, Creole Bay, Beauregard Island, Champagne Bay and Caminada Bay.
Oyster grown in cages sitting on the gulf’s floor are no different from unprotected oysters according to Melacon. The oysters are grown in the same water with the same salinity, but the difference is how they are harvested.
“Most Louisiana oysters are harvested with a dredge,” he explained. “Our oysters are harvested by hand. We raise the cage to the surface and only harvest oysters that are the desired size. We hand select each one, and they are beautiful to look at.”
Off-bottom oyster farmers still have many obstacles to overcome but the benefits are there, Supan said. Oysters have greater access to food because they are suspended in the water, and farmers can control for biofouling and even oyster size. The amount of time required for an oyster to mature into a harvestable size also is cut in half by off-bottom farming.
Supan hopes the Grand Isle project will prove successful and demonstrate to others that this type of oyster farming will work in Louisiana. It could open the door for other coastal communities to establish their own marine enterprise zones and create opportunities for their residents to obtain and work one of these farms.
Off-bottom oyster farming has been tremendously successful everywhere it has been put into practice, he said. It can create new industry and give people the chance to work for themselves, which fits right in with the independent spirit for which Louisiana’s coastal residents are known.
“If you build it, they will come,” he said.