by Ed Lallo/Gulf Seafood News Editor
A native of Ecuador, Marcos Guerrero has always believed there is a future in food coming from the sea. The Baton Rouge contractor and his family are now investing in sustainable seafood coming from oysters cage-grown in the waters off Grand Isle, Louisiana.
Approximately eighteen months ago Guerrero, his wife Lali and two sons, Aldo and Boris, founded Caminada Bay Premium Oysters and planted more than 170,000 seed oysters in 200 cages a few hundred yards off the island’s bay bridge, a pre-permitted farming zone for the oysters.
“Oyster are a sustainable source of food and at the same time provide a service of cleansing the water. We are from Latin America and grew up in a seaside town where seafood was the order of the day,” said Guerrero. “I started to read articles about off bottom oysters and the hatchery on Grand Isle. My sons and I started a conversation with the Grand Isle Port Commission and received one of the first plots to grow oysters in the new program they were starting.”
“Our cages are floating cages because oysters grown in these are sustainable, it is not something that can be fished out of existence. It is a renewable resource for food,” said the aquaculture entrepreneur. “Why floating cages? The majority of the nutrients are in the first twelve inches of the water column, that is why we decided to go with the floaters. I think it was a good decision because the oysters are growing pretty fast. Within a year we were harvesting.”
Floating oysters off-bottom keeps young oysters, called spat, from smothering under sediment and away from predators.
A Family Operation
Guerrero, who owns a construction company in Baton Rouge, and members of his family make the three-hour trip to Grand Isle at least twice a week to care for the bivalves. According to his oldest son Aldo, turning the cages allows the sun to kill any growing barnacles. “This is a way of keeping the cages clean using solar energy. At the end of the day we go back and re-flip the cage,” he said.
Aldo explained that flipping the cages also shapes the oysters into a cup. “If we didn’t flip the cages we would have a long flat bottom oyster,” he explained. “The unique shape also has more meat than a flat oyster. If you compare a three inch off bottom floating oyster to others, you will see the off bottom has more meat.”
At 31, the oldest son plans to eventually enter the business full time once it is fully established. A chemist by training, he currently works a full time as an inspector for the State of Louisiana’s Department of Water Quality.
Currently the family is harvesting approximately 700 oysters per cage. In Louisiana, they send 3 to 3 ½ inch oysters to market. Customers include Commanders Palace, Borne, Mariza and other notable New Orleans eating establishments. The also sell larger 4 inch oysters to Texas customers.
Over the course of the coming year, the family plans to expand operation to more than 500 cages.
“Five hundred cages is our goal,” said the elder Guerrero, “but this is still a very risky business. There are a lot of things that can affect our operation; from an oil spill, to hurricanes and of course the market has to continue to respond to what we are doing.”
For him fresh water is one of his main concerns. “This is going to be a huge issue.
Oysters do better in water closer to the sea salinity of 22-26 ppt. If there is fresh water intrusion there is less salinity and less flavor in the oysters. It also brings sickness.”
The open accessibility of the bridge lease has also caused problems.
“The location has caused a number of small problems,” he went on to explain. “We find a lot of hooks in the cages from local fisherman, but the real problem is theft. Being so close to the bridge and the island, our lease has been vandalized a number of time. A few months ago a poacher took two cages filled with about 1400 oysters ready for harvest.”
After the theft, the family installed a hidden camera system to watch over their lease.
Education for Fishermen Needed
The aquaculture enthusiast said that during the summer months when sport fishermen are numerous, they often don’t understand what is going on. “They take their boats onto our lease thinking they can just fish over the cages because it is the way it used to be,” he explained. “What they don’t know is they are actually endangering their boats, especially the motor and gears.”
The Guerrero’s have place yellow poles staking their lease as an aquaculture plot. According to him, fishermen need to recognize and respect the family’s hard work.
“I really think there has to be a greater effort made to educate recreational fisherman on the dangers and damages they can cause,” said the Guerrero’s oldest son. “Flyers should be passed to local marinas, as well as better online awareness. Coming into our oyster farm poses extreme risks to a fisherman’s boat.”
Aldo thinks the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, Sea Grant and local port commissions and marinas need to help in this education effort. He feels it is important that recreational fishermen know that entering these aquaculture areas is unlawful, as well as dangerous. “This is a program that needs to be implemented before aquaculture in the Gulf can grow.”
The two-year-old Grand Isle Oyster Farm is a first of its kind in Louisiana, spread across 25 acres. The overall success of the farming zone project is still being evaluated. The project is working, but technical success depends on individual growers like the Guerrero family.
The caged oyster grower is in the process of obtaining permits to start construction on a Grand Isle oyster processing facility to prepare for making the operation a full time business.
For Aldo the new enterprise has been a fun adventure. He loves getting out on the water and working on the lease. “You will see dolphins and other amazing wildlife. It is just a beautiful environment to work in,” he said.
“Over time I think what we are doing here can compete at oyster houses across the country, with east and west coast oysters,” said the patriarch of the family. “As the business grows we will definitely have more competitive power. I think this is the future of oysters, and I know it is our future for sure.”