Alternative oyster farming in Calcasieu Lake topic of meetings

By Cyndi Sellers

Oyster fishing is hard, back-breaking work, with results dependent on nature and the oyster market. An alternative method of production was being discussed at two meetings on Thursday, July 8.

Kevin Savoie and Earl Melancon, of LSU Sea Grant, presented information on Alternative Oyster Culture at the Cameron Parish Police Jury’s agenda meeting and to a group of interested oyster fishermen later at the Cameron Parish Port office.

Melancon shared the possibility of a 25-acre “off bottom” oyster culture park being developed in Calcasieu Lake within the next three years, through a collaboration between LSU Sea Grant, the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA), and Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. The Cameron Parish Port Authority would become the local sponsor.

Individual oyster fishermen could lease one-acre tracts to grow oysters in cages suspended in the water. These oysters would be marketed to the half-shell restaurant industry as a specialty product. The park would be located away from existing oyster reefs and would not interfere or compete with the established industry, but rather enhance it, Melancon said.

CPRA has set aside $2,017,460 to jump start the program: $1.8 million for the parks and $217,000 for Sea Grant to provide support. The goal is to have three alternative oyster culture parks in operation or at least in the process in Louisiana. One park is already in place at Grand Isle. St. Bernard or Terrebonne Parish could be the site of a third.

The park money will provide three $100,000 grants for park management, to be used by the local sponsor to acquire coastal use permits, manage leases, provide navigational lights, etc. Nursery farms will get $150,000 to grow eyed-larvae and small seed.

Grow-out farms, the actual cage oyster culture, will receive $900,000, doled out in grants of $45,000 per grower for start-up costs or enhancing existing farms. Each lease will be one acre. The grant can be used for cages, equipment, and seed oysters, but not for boats, motors, trucks, or salaries. The proposed Calcasieu Lake park would be able to support up to 25 growers.

Thirty-five percent of the grant money is reserved for new applicants and will be distributed on a competitive basis. Another 35 percent will be used to enhance existing active farms, and 30 percent can go to either group.

Private hatcheries will be eligible for grants from the remaining $450,000. Melancon said the seed oysters used in Calcasieu Lake will be grown from Calcasieu Lake stock, and no Calcasieu Lake seed oysters will be sent to any other park. There will be no mixing of genetics.

Sea Grant will be available to help applicants with business plans and creating restaurant partnerships.

Off-bottom oyster culture is not a new idea, said Melancon. Florida has had such operations for decades. There are over 300 acres with 150 oyster farms on the east and west coasts of Florida. Alabama has 20 farms on 64 acres, and Mississippi has 13 farms on 25 acres. Texas is just getting started but shows a lot of interest.

Louisiana has 19 farm sites (not all active) on 30 acres in Grand Isle. The goal of the collaboration is to enhance existing alternative oyster culture businesses and increase the number of new ones within three years.

The Cameron Parish Port commission has reviewed the presentation and will consider becoming the Calcasieu Lake sponsor. Several local oyster fishermen expressed interest in this new method of oyster harvesting.