Before my recent visit to New Orleans for the Sustainable Seafood Blog Conference, my experience with Gulf oyster culture was a distant, virtual one. Despite the popularity of these gentle giants in the south, they are almost nowhere to be seen up north… in raw form, anyway. Like a mythical land, this secretive oyster world has eluded me for years. When I finally got a chance to explore a slice of Louisiana oyster country with Tommy Waller of The Oyster Bed, Captain Pete and Trey Vujnovich, I jumped at the opportunity.
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While there are no walls or fences preventing a curious ostreaphile from learning more about where their bivalves come from, you kind of have to know where to look. Louisiana oysters come from 30 different harvest areas, sanctioned and carefully regulated by the state. These oyster beds are nestled in a maze of estuarine channels that are only accessible by boat. Tommy and I drove for over an hour from New Orleans to Port Sulfur, where we rendezvoused with Trey Vujnovich, a third-generation oyster farmer who has lived and worked along the Louisiana waters all his life.

Trey’s grandparents came over from Croatia in the early 1900s along with many other Croatian families. Louisiana, and New Orleans in particular, was a center of Croatian immigration back then and select families brought their precious knowledge of oystering with them. I found this great summary of Croatian history in Southeastern Louisiana by Dr. Carolyn Ware that talks about the integration of old world oyster culture in new territory. Here’s a brief excerpt:

Commercial fishing has long been the most prevalent traditional occupation among Croatian men in Plaquemines Parish, particularly oyster fishing. Croatians are credited with developing the state’s commercial oyster industry, and Luke Jurisich (who settled at Bayou Creek in 1855) is often called the father of Croatian oyster fishing in Louisiana.

Many of Louisiana’s Croatian men continue to fish oysters, and some are third- or fourth-generation oystermen. Sons often start fishing with fathers on weekends and summers as children. As adults, they frequently still fish on the acres once leased by their fathers. Fishermen need more acreage today than they did sixty or seventy years ago, though, because the dredges used require more space than oyster tongs did.

Since then, tonging and dredging native reefs for wild oysters has turned into a carefully choreographed practice of seeding, tending to, and harvesting commercial oyster beds. In other words, oyster farming rather than oyster fishing. But unlike most oyster farms that I’ve been to, which obtain seed through a hatchery and then employ some type of container (bag or cage) to grow out their product, the Vujnoviches and other growers in Louisiana still do things the old school way.

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Extensive vs Intensive Oyster Culture

The old school way—the way oyster farming has been done for over a century—is broadly categorized as “extensive” culture nowadays. I had an enlightening email exchange with Robert Rheault, Executive Director of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association about this the few months ago that I think is worth sharing. As he helped me understand it, there are two key areas where extensive and intensive oyster culture differ: how the seed is procured and how the oysters are grown out.

Seed collection: extensive culture primarily relies on the collection of wild set. First, a  grower must spread a bed of shell (cultch) across an area known to contain a healthy population of reproductive oysters. If all goes according to plan, the adult oysters will spawn and the new oyster larvae will settle on the cultch. Once that happens, the grower retrieves the spat on shell and replants it on private grounds for grow out. When spatfall is abundant, the subsequent crop can be tremendous if your timing is right. This method is still employed in a few areas, including (but not limited to) the Long Island Sound, New Jersey, Wellfleet, New Brunswick, and the Gulf of Mexico.

Robert also brought to my attention the notion of “remote setting.” Remote setting is when you take hatchery-reared oyster larvae and set them on shell in tanks (on land). The spat on shell will then be transplanted and used to enhance wild fisheries, or to do restoration aquaculture in public beds.

Grow out: if you think about oysters like any other domesticated protein, extensive culture employs a “free range” philosophy. Once the spat on shell is transplanted to private grounds, they’re just kind of left to their own devices. Extensive culture does not use containers such as mesh bags, cages, floats, etc to collect or protect their investment. If the grower wishes to move or harvest the oysters, they do so using tongs or dredges. Culling and grading is done on large skiffs. If an oyster is too small to be sold, they’re simply thrown back into the water for further development.

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After a breathtakingly beautiful boat ride out to Bay Sansbois, our skiff approached a larger boat on the horizon. We first conducted a 180 degree photo shoot of the vessel, which Captain Pete graciously posed for. I hopped aboard and was greeted by a warm smile, firm handshake, and a tray of freshly grilled oysters. Oh yes, Capt Pete’s boat is equipped with a grill and essential fixings. Now that’s the best “Welcome Aboard” I’ve experienced yet!

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Chargrilled oysters is a staple in many New Orleans restaurants, but having them on an oyster boat is a rare treat. The cheesy, garlicky oysters were grilled to perfection—soft and smoky, still supple with butter-infused liquor. Our oyster meal was accompanied by slices of chewy bread and icy Bud Lights. The simple things in life tend to be the best.

Once we had our fill of grilled oysters, it was time to sample some raw. Capt Pete whipped out a Gulf-style oyster knife and swiftly open a handful of these giants. The rough, unrefined exterior gives no hint at the succulent, cream-colored animal inside.

The raw oysters that I tried were pretty mild—the brine was barely detectable, which correlates to the bay’s low salinity level (6-8ppt). The meat had a satisfying crunch to it, which was surprising given its size. I can only imagine what they taste like during prime oystering season. According to Capt Pete, “There’s nothing better than a November oyster. They’re cold, crisp and salty.”

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Chasing Salinity

In my experience, the oysters that I’ve had from the Gulf tend to be large and mild like Capt Pete’s. Because of this, I assumed that the Gulf of Mexico was just less saline than the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Apparently that’s not actually the case. The Gulf possesses full ocean salinity (35 ppt), but there’s a LOT more freshwater inflow around the oyster beds here.

The trick to growing a top notch Louisiana oyster is knowing how to “chase the salinity.” Captain Pete Vujnovich has spent decades perfecting this art. Once he collects his spat on shell, Capt Pete carefully assesses the water on his leases to determine the best place for them to hunker down. If the water is too saline, the baby oysters will be gobbled up by predators. If the water is too fresh, they will simply die. Finding the perfect goldilocks combination takes some research and educated guessing.

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Tommy and I tried our hand at shucking for awhile, which proved to be more difficult than it looks. The big old shells were much hardier than the petite Virginicas that I’ve grown accustomed to. Capt Pete recommended going through the “umbo” aka hinge, but then sliding the knife around the opposite side of the adductor (rather than towards it). It allowed for a cleaner cut along the top shell, but was hard to get used to. I didn’t cut myself in the process, but definitely could see that I made the fellas all sweat a bit. 😛

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There is something that feels deeply satisfying about shucking your own oyster, eating it, and then tossing the empty shell back into the water. You give and you take, without waste. Capt Pete’s operation is a much larger manifestation of this idea. He brings his oysters to a shucking facility (P&J Oyster Company being a major buyer/processor of his oysters) and receives the empty shells back, which then allows him to start the farming process all over again. It feels natural and easy, and allows life to go on.

Saving the Land and Way of Life

Although my time with Tommy and the Vujnoviches was a happy one, I wouldn’t do this story justice if I only painted a sunny picture. Like the storm that crept up on us towards the end (see photo above… no filter there), something ominous is approaching. This way of life in Louisiana—living off the water—is at risk of disappearing. Entire oystering communities have already been lost, and the scale of Louisiana’s oyster production has been greatly reduced by natural and man-made situations. The cause of it all is much more complicated than I can clearly explain, but there is one tangible fact that alarms me more than almost any other: coastal erosion.

Louisiana is losing its ground, quite literally. According to the US Geological Survey, the state has lost about half of its original wetland habitats in the last 200 years and is currently losing a football field of land per hour in coastal erosion. Oyster reefs are one of the best impediments to coastal erosion and the state has invested millions in reef restoration. While some projects sadly pit fishermen and conservationists against each other, there are other solutions that benefit both sides.

In the win-win scenarios, shells play a critical part in the equation. Whether it’s recycling used shells by collecting them from restaurants or enticing oyster lovers to use more pre-shucked meats through the creation of tools such as The Oyster Bed, getting more shells back into the water (rather than in the landfill) is the focus. It’s a missing link that intensive oyster culture and the half shell market haven’t yet resolved.

Here’s a great video from The Oyster Bed’s Kickstarter Campaign that helps explain how they’re empowering oyster lovers everywhere to help create more oysters, more reefs, and more land.

For some reason, I used to think that Gulf oyster farming was less environmentally beneficial than more “modern” forms of oyster farming, but now I’m not so sure. In fact, I’m starting to wonder whether or not extensive farming holds the key to scale and sustainability.

“The first man gets the oyster, the second man gets the shell,” was one of Andrew Carnegie’s favorite sayings. If you ask most people, you’d probably aspire to be that first man (or woman). But for Captain Pete and Trey Vujnovich, other Louisiana oyster growers, and forward-looking reef restorationists, their answer might be a little different. As for me, I’ll still take that oyster, but do my best to give back the shell. 🙂

Many thanks to Tommy and Adam Waller, Captain Pete and Trey Vujnovich, and Sal Suneri of P&J Oyster Company for your friendship, support, and doing what y’all do best.