Grand Isle oyster hatchery embarks on new chapter - FOX 8 WVUE New Orleans News, Weather, Sports

Grand Isle oyster hatchery embarks on new chapter

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Grand Isle, La. - Oyster production in Louisiana continues to sag since the BP oil spill, but there's a new effort underway in Grand Isle that could revolutionize an industry that may be ripe for change.

Money provided by BP to help restore the coast is now being put to work at a new facility that could go a long way toward helping the industry recover. 

He's the fourth generation to dredge oysters from Louisiana waters, and is now on the cutting edge.

"I'm the only one out there. Nobody knows what I'm doing, but everyone's interested," said oysterman Jules Melancon, who tends a 600 acre oyster lease north of Grand Isle.

It's an area constantly plagued by storms, fresh water, and oil spills

"What's happening for us in the oyster industry is that we're on a roller coaster ride," said Melancon. "And right now it's on the bottom."

Melancon is on the front end of an oyster industry culture shift. He's giving up the traditional and costly oyster dredge for buckets and an oyster cultivation process common on the east and west coasts, but revolutionary here.

"When I started here a month ago I had one barrel, now I have four barrels," Melancon said.

"You're not depending on the wild for your seed," said John Supan, PhD with the Louisiana Sea Grant Program. "You can pick up the phone and place an order for as much as you need."

Each barrel contains thousands of juvenile oysters raised at a hatchery staffed by three research assistants who monitor algae, water quality, and breeding all hours of the day and night.

The assistants come from other parts of the country where oyster cultivation is common.

"I think the future is here. I don't think the natural population will come back too much," said research assistant Stephanie Grodeska.

Some oysters are bred for meat, others are bred for size and desirability for half shell consumption.

"As we start looking more select stocks, it makes sense to grow them in more advanced culture methods, especially for half shell consumption," said Dr. Supan.

For 20 years, the oyster hatchery has been producing larvae, but now it is moving indoors.

A new $3 million hatchery now under construction is raised high enough to avoid storm surge, and since it's climate controlled, it will allow researchers to extend their oyster breeding season and harvest a billion oyster larvae each year.

The raised building will also save Supan and his staff from having to dismantle the complicated algae producing system needed to feed the oysters every time a storm threatens.

"This is the fifth time I've built this hatchery," said Supan. "When I move in next door, it will be the last time."

The oysters are raised to a certain size, then either used for re-seeding existing beds, or for cultivation in cages designed to keep the oysters off the bottom and away from predators.

The juvenile oysters go through four different mesh sizes to get to a certain point. They are then now ready to go into oyster grow cages which could be the beginning of Louisiana's new oyster growing industry.

The Louisiana Sea Grant's oyster hatchery program relies on two methods to farm oysters. One uses mesh bags that are tethered and lowered to the sea floor. The other method relies on new, floating 'oyster grow' cages developed by a French Canadian, with a name common in Louisiana.

"This floating cage was developed by Raoul Savoie in Backtush Bay, Canada," said Supan.

Tired of problems with fresh water, oil spills, and unpredictable weather, Jules Melancon has invested heavily in the new method of cultivation and 'oyster grow' cages that can be moved wherever salinity levels are right.

They can also be sunk when tropical weather approaches.

"Once you get it going, these oysters will be high end; places that want good oysters, and have flavor and have the salt," said Melancon.

They don't look like it now, but these tiny mollusks will grow up to be premium oysters drawing top dollar because of their size, taste, and quality.

"900,000 oysters to an acre that you can produce with these every year," said Supan.

The state is investing heavily in this new way of oystering. More oystermen like Jules Melancon will buy into a new way of doing things that may ultimately make the oyster industry roller coaster a whole lot smoother.

The new $3 million indoor oyster hatchery is expected to be completed next year. The Grand Isle Port Commission is now leasing out water acreage to other oyster farmers willing to invest in the new cultivation system.

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