New techniques speed oyster growth, harvests |

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Sessa 30 Oyster boat

New techniques speed oyster growth, harvests

Last Modified: Friday, November 1, 2013 at 10:46 p.m.

As oil began to coat the Louisiana shoreline in summer 2010, 30-year oysterman Jules Melancon was on the edge of abandoning the industry he joined as an 11-year-old.

I was going to sell my boat, and I as going to get out, Melancon said. Now, I m experimenting.

Three years later, Melancon said the old oyster beds remain withered, but his new plots are turning a profit.

Melancon is the first tenant in the Grand Isle Oyster Farm. His catch is now more of a harvest.

The farm is spread over 25 acres a few hundred yards from the bridge in Caminada Bay. It s marked with buoys and signs and lined with floats. Under the chop lies Melancon s livelihood and a new, fancier Louisiana oyster.

Louisiana Sea Grant Oyster Specialist John Supan said the project has been beset by storms and spills for a decade.

Right now we are just getting things started. I call it research, development and disaster. Now we are up and running and getting growers going, Supan said. This is a test case for Louisiana.

The Grand Isle Port Commission manages the farm area. It s a pre-permitted location that allows anyone with an oyster fishing license an opportunity to get involved.

Supan said it s an ongoing plan to commercialize farmed oyster products for Louisiana. The plot is linked with a streamlined seed production system and a method of growing oysters that are new to Louisiana.

Unlike traditional operations that dredge oysters from underwater beds, the oysters are grown in cages suspended from floats in the water.

The system originated in Canada and is popular elsewhere, but new to Louisiana.

The oyster seed is put in a mesh bag, which is then placed in a cage that sits suspended in the water column, Supan explained.

The product grows faster and sells for much more.

In the wild, it takes five years for an oyster to get that large, Melancon said holding out an oyster. I grew that in 18 months, sold it for a dollar. I d be getting 18 cents for that wild oyster.

Supan said because the oysters are suspended in the water, the current passes through faster, bringing the oysters more food than they d receive on the bottom where flow is impeded by the natural unevenness of the floor.

Melancon s harvest is bound for San Antonio and then to be served to a high-end, half-shell customer.

In Melancon s first year, he sold 60,000 oysters from a few dozen cages. Some went for $1, some for 50 cents. His ultimate goal is a 700 cage operation.

We get more money for them, and restaurants are more selective. We ve got the number one oyster in the state, you can see how perfect it grows, Melancon said.

Supan said the Grand Isle Farm is a test case for the system and will work in conjunction with a new seed source aimed at reducing the industry s reliance on wild seed.

We now have established the Louisiana Oyster Dealers and Growers Association as the commercial distributor of our (hatchery) products, Supan said the hatchery has disease resistant seed and oysters that will maintain mass during the summer. We want to establish commercial nurseries that call the oyster association get the larvae or spat and grow them up to a thumbnail size and sell that to people who can t run a nursery.

This, he said, would take uncertainty of the process.

Supan said the hatchery also has some equipment like seed graders, oyster washers for farmers to use as they get their feet wet with the new system.

I m interested in seeing just how much of an impact something like this can have on a town like Grand Isle, Supan said envisioning the million-oyster farms of Canada. You teach people how to become farmers, it can become an industry for a town.

Jules Melancon sizes oysters on Monday in Grand Isle. November 1, 2013 10:46 PM

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