GRAND ISLE — With a 20 mph north wind whipping up whitecaps on Caminada Bay, it’s a Saturday where most small boat owners have second thoughts about venturing from shore. But not Steve Pollock.
He has to check his oysters.
If Pollock’s 19-foot pleasure craft seems an unconventional commercial fishing boat, he and his wife, Ginger Brininstool, are even more unlikely oystermen. Each teaches biology at LSU, and, until recently, aquariums were their primary contact with marine life.
But a year ago, while visiting their camp on Grand Isle, Brininstool saw an item in the Lafourche Gazette about water leases available for an alternative form of raising oysters.
“I told Steve, ‘You should check this out. This is something we could do,” Brininstool said.
Now, the Triple N Oyster Farm is something they are doing.
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Growing oysters in containers that float or are suspended off the bottom has been done elsewhere, but only recently came to Louisiana. The Grand Isle Port Commission made 300-by-300-foot plots of water available to such oyster operations near the west end of the island.
There are several advantages, Pollock said.
“We planted the oyster seed in August as a 5-millimeter diameter seed,” he said. “We started selling those at the end of January, beginning of February. So, in five to six months, we have market-size oysters for sale. If we would have put those on the bottom the traditional way, it would take two, perhaps three years, depending on the environment.”
Pollock chose a method that holds oysters in plastic cages with floats that keep them bobbing on the water surface. There is plenty of algae to feed the oysters, and the barnacles are less likely to grow on the oysters, which makes them easier to clean and more attractive to consumers.
Water movement causes the oysters to bump into each other. That discourages them from growing wider, so they grow deeper. These oysters do not reproduce, so all their energy goes into producing meat. The result is an oyster size that customers prefer, Pollock said.
As long as he can get the oysters into a refrigerated truck in the required amount of time, they can be harvested year-round, bypassing the “months than include an ‘R’” rule.
But it’s hard work.
Even when he’s not harvesting, Pollock goes out to the oyster cages every weekend to check on them, correct problems and sort the oysters. Sometimes, he drives down from Baton Rouge on a weekday in which he’s not teaching to harvest or finish work that wasn’t completed on Sunday. On weekends, his son, Justin, 11, and wife help, with their daughter, Megan, 3, coming along to sample an oyster or two. On weekdays, it’s all him.
“Handling the cages is physically demanding,” Pollock said. “I get scratched. I’m sore when we get back on Sunday evening probably until Wednesday because of the weight involved.”
There was definitely a learning curve.
Getting the licenses was the easy part, and the tiny baby oysters are readily available at the Michael C. Voisin Oyster Hatchery on Grand Isle or the Auburn University Shellfish Laboratory at Dauphin Island, Alabama. Creating a working system was trickier.
In August, Pollock set out about 100,000 tiny oysters in cages that are held together by ropes that are secured to the bottom on each end. It turned out that Pollock had tied the ropes to the cages improperly. A storm sent many of them floating off into the Gulf of Mexico. He had to sink other cages to prevent them from doing the same thing.
“It was a complete mess,” he said. “It was almost as close to a complete failure as it could have been, but we were able to salvage about 60,000 oysters, but we lost about 40 percent. If there was a point where I was going to back out, it was there and then.”
Jay Styron, who runs a similar system in North Carolina, taught Pollock how to correct the problem, and he hasn’t lost any cages since.
Despite the setback, Pollock said he expects to more than break even this year. One client, Jolie Pearl Oyster Bar, plans to add a second location.
For the Pollocks, the world is not yet their oyster — and oysters are not yet their world — but they hope both situations might change.
“If we can double that in the fall, I might not be teaching anymore at LSU, let’s put it that way,” Pollock said.