There are rare oysters in Grand Isle. We saw some of them with long time Oysterman Jules Melancon. There are two aspects of the oysters that standout to Melancon.
'I've never seen oysters grow this fast,' said Melancon.
Melancon shucks an oyster.
'Pretty fat, this is a perfect half shell right here', Melancon said.
What makes it perfect, according to Melancon, is the oyster's meat content. Melancon is the first commercial oysterman in Louisiana to grow oysters that have been especially cross-bred to stay full and fat...even during the summer, a time when wild oysters are less than ideal.
'Usually they're really poor, and there's no quality, this got quality to it, this has quality and meat,' Melancon said.
'When you eat charbroiled oysters in the summer time, we have a big shell with a little piece of meat. These oysters, they stay full,' said John Supan.
John Supan is a research professor at the LSU Ag center's sea grant college program. He's the brains behind the breeding. Professor Supan began researching this concept of cross breeding oysters back in 1993. After roughly nine years of work and experimentation, he and his team had a break through. In the spring of 2002, they successfully produced what they call a 'triploid' oyster.'
'A triploid is any animal or any plant, that has three sets of chromosomes,' Supan explained.
Most plants and animals, including humans and oysters, are diploids, meaning they have two sets of chromosomes. To create the triploid oyster, Supan bred a male 'tetraploid' oyster with a female diploid oyster. I had to have Supan walk me through the math.
'The tetraploid has four sets of chromosomes, and we crossed it with a diploid which has two sets of chromosomes and the result is the triploid, which has three sets of chromosomes,' said Supan.
Professor Supan said that third set of chromosomes is the key factor in allowing these oysters to be meaty during the summer. The triploid oyster doesn't spawn. It's sterile and won't spend its energy mating. Instead that energy just goes to getting, well...fat.
'They retain their winter fat acquired during the winter time, they don't burn it off during the summer to spawn, which causes their meat yield to drop and become watery. The triploids stay fat all summer long' said Supan.
For any concerned consumer that refuses to buy or ingest anything that's genetically modified, Supan says the oysters are perfectly natural. He likened it to seedless watermelon. There may be no seed, but there's still the same flavor, texture and consistency.
'We have not inserted strange genes into these oysters. The chromosomes in these oysters were in the oysters already. It's just part of a breeding process,' Supan said.
Jules Melancon was intrigued by the cross breeding and connected with Professor Supan. Melancon says post Katrina and post BP oil spill, the oyster industry has been struggling.
'It's not coming back like it used to be. My 60-foot vessel, I might end up having to sell the boat because there's no more industry,' said Melancon.
Melancon and Supan say getting more oystermen to grow these oysters can help. The prospect of growing and harvesting fat, meaty, and consistent oysters during the summer is very attractive. Even so, Supan doesn't see this as a replacement to the traditional oyster industry, which often involves dredging for wild oysters.
'These triploid oysters would be their summer crop. They would harvest the traditional oysters while meat yields are high and come late spring or summer when the water temperatures rise and oysters spawn and the meat yield drops, then you switch over to the summer crop,' said Supan.
There are start up costs. Growers would need to purchase special cages, nurseries and the oyster larvae itself. Not to mention waterfront property. Melancon says even with the extra cost and labor, there's a good potential for profit.
'I'm getting fifty cents apiece, I could get more than that if I wanted to,' said Melancon
He says right now, wild oysters would sell for about 25-cents apiece. Yet, all of his oysters are going out of state, to Houston. Local buyers are scarce.
'I think the challenge is marketing,' said Supan.
Professor Supan said the program is at a commercial stage. Oysterman can now order their larvae by phone or online through the Louisiana Oyster Dealers and Growers Association. If the program takes off, it can be another option for an industry trying to stay alive and the consumer hungry for fat oysters.
'Let's get these oysters on the half shell bars. Let's let the consumers look at them themselves and choose, do they want this meaty fat oyster? Or do they want this skinny watery oyster?' said Supan.
For more information about the program and ordering the triploid oyster larvae, should contact the Louisiana Oyster Dealers and Growers Association.