Photo courtesy of ORA Technologies, Inc.
Oyster Break rings, a new technology being employed along the coast, provide coastal protection as well as a structure upon which oyster beds may become established.
On cold winter days, down a long bayou called Dularge in the pre-dawn darkness, luggers idle away from the dock, headed to harvest oysters from local beds. Irish satirist Jonathan Swift once said, “He was a brave man who first dared eat oysters.” Truer words might not have ever been spoken about this unattractive, but delectable, bivalve mollusk.
While there are countless varieties of oysters, the ones grown and harvested in coastal Louisiana are the eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica). A valuable species in the brackish eco-system, one oyster can filter more than fifty gallons of water in twenty-four hours. As evidenced by shell middens in coastal Louisiana, these salty delights of the sea have been part of our culture and cuisine for hundreds of years.
Around the 1840s, Croatian-Slavonian immigrants moved to Louisiana and began fishing for oysters below New Orleans. Those families eventually transplanted oysters west of the Mississippi River where the conditions are prime, producing a fatter, tastier oyster. As oyster farming caught on, the Cajuns soon began taking part in the planting and harvesting in more western coastal communities.
Although backbreaking and tedious, the first method of harvesting oysters was by hand and hatchet or hammer. As methods evolved, large metal tongs were used to scoop up the mollusks. Now, large oyster dredges are used to do the same thing. Once on the boat, the oysters must be culled, which involves knocking the oysters apart with a small hatchet, throwing the small ones back, and then sacking the larger ones.
Contrary to popular belief, oysters do not thrive in highly saline waters, instead preferring salinity levels somewhere between five and fifteen parts per thousand. Over the years coastal erosion and saltwater encroachment have facilitated the need to move the industry’s oyster leases further and further inland in order to stay within the preferred salinity ranges.
Staying within those desired ranges necessitates that new oyster beds are built and planted. The first layer of a manmade oyster bed is made with a foundation of limestone lain at the new location. The limestone works well as a substrate because the larval oysters, or “spat,” cling to smooth, hard surfaces. Farmers then harvest mature oysters from the old beds and transplant them to new ones by dumping them right on the limestone foundation.
Once new beds are established in these improved conditions, the lifecycle can continue with the spawn: eggs and sperm are released into the water, join, and soon grow into floating larvae. In about three weeks, the larvae develop a foot and sink to the bottom where, ideally, they attach to the mature oysters waiting below. From there, Mother Nature takes over the oysters’ relocation, solving the short-term problem, but not the long-term one—ongoing saltwater intrusion.
Several years ago, an enterprising LSU student, with an interest in coastal protection, developed an innovative solution that would help both oyster and coastal shorelines. As part of a senior design project, Tyler Ortego helped create giant, interlocking concrete rings that, when stacked and lined up along a shoreline, provide coastal protection and a potential home for oyster spat. These rings, now known as Oyster Break™ and manufactured using a proprietary cement mixture called Oyster Krete™, are proving their worth in five projects along the Gulf’s shorelines. The young spat attach to the Oyster Break rings, and as they grow, increase the mass of the protective rings. Buffering wave action and allowing the sediment to build up behind them, these oyster-strewn rings protect and reinforce the natural shoreline. A series of these rings also acts as an artificial reef, as fish and other marine life swim in and out while feeding. The end result is a self-sustaining, living shoreline that will continue to grow, providing habitat and protection for the coast and a home for oysters.
Other oyster-industry advances have improved their availability, now nearly year-round. Surely you’ve heard the old adage to only eat oysters in the months containing the letter ‘r’? Well, that’s a piece of advice that is best left in the past, along with the inferior refrigeration methods partially responsible for that precaution. The other half of the equation—the high concentrations of harmful bacteria in Louisiana’s coastal waters during the summer months—was eliminated as a concern when, in the late 1990s, a team of scientists and oystermen discovered a method for pasteurizing oysters. The process, which involves hydrostatic pressure, kills the bacteria inside the shell while simultaneously cleaning and shucking the oyster. The oysters are then wrapped with a band (gold-colored when processed out of Motivatit Seafood in Houma), keeping the briny liquor trapped inside the shell. The pasteurization process (which also increases shelf life) combined with refrigeration on boats, trucks, and trailers, debunks the near-mythological mantra to only eat oysters from May through August.
Safely harvested, how best does one prove a lion heart—at least as far as Mr. Swift is concerned? Let us count the ways: raw, fried, baked, broiled, stewed, in gumbo, bisque, in dressing, and last but not least, charbroiled. Many a kind soul, who can’t stomach a raw oyster, will make him or herself ill downing charbroiled oysters. After attending a local oyster broil myself recently, I became a convert; and charbroiling oysters is easily done at home on a grill. Place the raw oysters on the grill on the half shell, douse them with garlic-butter sauce, then sprinkle them with Romano and Parmesan cheeses and add a splash of Louisiana hot sauce. Close the grill and let them sizzle; once the edges curl, these taste sensations are ready. Just a word of warning to those of you who suck them off the shell: remember they are H-O-T!
Wendy Wilson Billiot is a freelance writer living on Bayou Dularge. Visit her interactive web log at bayouwoman.com.
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For more information on oysters and how to prepare them, visit louisianaseafood.com.
To learn more about OysterBreak™, visit wayfarertech.com.