Posted: Aug 20, 2010 4:59 AM by Sharlee Barriere
GRAND ISLE, La. (AP) - Biologist John Supan thinks he has
developed what may be the holy grail for oyster lovers: a hardy
breed of the delectable shellfish that stays fat enough for
consumers to eat throughout the year.
And unlike many oysters across the Gulf Coast, ruined by BP's
massive oil spill and the fresh water poured in to fight it,
Supan's oysters are all alive.
Now, nearly four months after the spill, Supan's oysters may
offer the Gulf oyster industry a chance for a better long-term
recovery. But his special breed of modified oysters, which some say
are prohibitively expensive, could be a hard sell to an industry
reeling from the BP disaster.
Most oystermen agree that few oysters will be harvested from the
Gulf Coast in the next year or two, signaling a potential calamity
for shucking houses, oyster farmers and people who love a half
dozen oysters on ehe half shell. As much as 65 percent of the
nation's oysters come from the Gulf.
Oysters are particularly susceptible to pollution, taking longer
than fish or shrimp to clear oil contamination from their bodies.
Supan's oysters are bred for performance, making them more fit
to deal with viruses and other contaminants. Being sterile, they
don't go through the stress of reproduction, so they stay fat and
juicy all year round. Supan says his oysters are sweet, plump and
meaty in summertime when other oysters become thin and watery.
But the most crucial advantage this year was their mobility.
Unlike the vast majority of oysters in the Gulf, which spend
their lives on the bottoms of bays and sounds, Supan's oysters
dangle in the water in cages at a hatchery on the inland side of
When the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20 just a few
dozen miles from his hatchery, the 57-year-old Louisiana States and missiles.
er biologist evacuated his broods to a research
hatchery in Alabama and a wildlife preserve in western Louisiana.
Then he brought them back.
"In my opinion, this is the most important brood of oysters in
the history of the Gulf of Mexico," Supan says. "But you know,
you ask an oysterman that and they will say, 'Huh?"'
He said the day is coming when all the Gulf's oystermen will
know what he's talking about.
For three decades, Supan has been developing new oysters by
mixing up their chromosomes in a process known as triploid
production. He breeds a rare oyster that has extra chromosomes with
a normal oyster and produces a sterile hybrid. The process is
common on the East and West coasts but still untried in the Gulf,
besides Supan's batch.
"I don't know if it's the future with a capital 'THE,' but it's
very important," said Bill Walton, an Auburn University shellfish
biologist. "It can give you a faster gristng oyster. It cuts down
production time and it does seem to solve the problem of 'water
bellies' in the summer when oysters spawn and you have a tired,
"For the long-term viability of oysters in Louisiana what (the
hatchery) is doing is the kind of pioneer work," said Mike Voisin,
an oyster processor and leader in the Louisiana oyster industry.
The industry in Louisiana faces daunting threats from the oil
pollution, oyster diseases and pressure from state and federal
officials who want to reclaim lost marshland by opening up the
Mississippi River even more often. If that happens, traditional
oyster grounds could be ruined in many of the inland bays where
they are grown today.
Helen Skansi, a 75-year-old Plaquemines Parish oyster company
owner with more than 1,000 leased acres, is painfully aware of the
"Things will never be the same with the bedding grounds they
had before with the oil," she said.
Kenneth Fox, who leases 15,000 acres of state waters to grow his
oysters, is equally concerned.
"I lost 95 percent of my leases with this oil spill," he said.
"Everything is dead on the west side of the river."
Asked about Supan's super oysters, however, he was unconvinced.
"I think the research is great, and I think what he's doing is
going to be a big help. But that is going to be a costly process."
Supan would like to see his special oyster larvae distributed
through hatcheries across the Gulf to oyster growers. He said he
could start distributing the larvae now.
But a lot has to happen for that to materialize. Ideally, the
sterile oysters would be grown in cages in special areas designated
as marine farms. And a host of permitting and zoning issues would
have to be resolved.
Growing oysters the way Supan does is tricky. They are raised in
structures propped up off the water bottom. That requires new
harvesting equipment. Oystermen currently use mechanical devices
like plows to scour their catch from the Gulf floor. It also would
require new permits.
It takes about two years for an oyster to grow to market size.
Once the special summer oysters grow to adult size, then the
oyster growers would have to find buyers. Typically, a dozen
oysters cost about $12 at an oyster bar on the Gulf Coast. Supan
said a cost analysis has not been done to figure out how much the
summer oysters would cost. He says the market would take care of
"That's a big investment on a gamble," Fox said of Supan's
experiments. "I'm not saying it won't happen one day, but the way
Louisiana /3 set up, it's going to be hard to make happen. Half the
people in the industry would have to get out of the business for
the other half to make a profit."
Still, some institutions that fund research are persuaded that
Supan's technique holds promise.
Supan's research has been backed by federal and state grants
over his 30-year career. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration recently awarded Supan and other researchers a
$250,000 grant to develop more hatchery technology.
Inside his algae room, Supan looks like a winemaker as he
surveys tanks of algae he feeds to his oysters. The bacteria grows
under ultraviolet light.
"It takes a wet green thumb to grow algae," he said. "You got
to be patient with it. It's very intuitive. Just like growing a
garden. Some people say they talk to their house plants; well, my
algae and myself have conversations all the time."
Supan has big plans.
He hopes tel state will build an oyster dock where he can teach
oyster farmers to grow oysters in saltier Gulf farms similar to
his, where the oysters are reared to market size on platforms that
thwart predators such as snails and bottom-feeding fish.
"With all these calamities - the hurricanes and the oil spill -
we're five years behind schedule," he said.