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Posted: Tuesday, 11 February 2014 7:04AM

Off-bottom oyster farming launched in Grand Isle waters

A Louisiana oyster growing project, in the works since 2004, is finally off the ground...literally.

The off-bottom oyster growing system in waters off Grand Isle uses cages to suspend young oysters in the water instead of planting them on oyster reefs or the sea bottom for them to mature.

"Since the oysters are suspended and not buried in silt, their food supply is much better and you get a quicker growth rate," says Wayne Keller, Executive Director of the Grand Isle Port Commission.

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.

The Grand Isle Port Commission has designated 25 acres of coastal water off of Grand Isle 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.

This type of system has been extremely successful in other parts of the world. If successful here, it could spark new interest in oyster farming and provide a new source for oysters consumed by the half-shell. It also can increase oyster yield.

Typically only about 35 percent of oysters "planted" on the bottom are harvested. The rest fall prey to predators or Mother Nature.

"You get a tremendous difference in the predation rate," Keller says. "Basically, because they're walled off from the outside predators."

Plus, the bottom planted oysters may land upside-down when they settle. In that case, they quickly smother and die soon after they are thrown into the water over muddy water bottoms.

And, the off-bottom oysters, says Keller, are not affected by the sea bottom in another way.  

"They're more of a cupped oyster. They're real pretty, because they're not misshapen like they normally form on the bottom and they're all individual. Basically it makes a beautiful, half-shell, presentation-type oyster in a much shorter period of time."

And, the cages are portable.

"If you have some problems...God forbid, another oil spill...or some other problems with salinity or you have to move them for some reason, it makes it a lot easier. They're already in the cages...they're clean, they're not suspended in the mud."

"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."

Most Louisiana oysters are harvested with a dredge. These oysters are harvested by hand and only those of the desired size are selected.

Working with the port commission on Grand Island, as well as the LSU Sea Grant Oyster Research Lab, the operation is currently growing in six different areas; Independence Island, Barataria Bay, Creole Bay, Beauregard Island, Champagne Bay and Caminada Bay.

Lower Louisiana oyster production the last few years has caused many fishermen to focus their efforts on either rebuilding reefs or turning to other types of seafood to make a living.


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