Many an oyster comes to the end of its days in a local restaurant. If Steve Pollock has his way, Baton Rouge is where millions of the tasty bivalves will get their start.
Although the capital city is over 50 miles from the nearest salt water, Pollock has started an inland oyster hatchery with the goal of supplying commercial oyster fishermen and helping coastal restoration efforts.
It’s a bold move because oyster hatcheries are almost exclusively on the coast, where the salt water is.
“I love challenges,” Pollock said.
He’s shown that before. Like now, oysters were what brought out his daring side.
Pollock, 48, was teaching biology at LSU in 2015. While visiting their camp in Grand Isle, his wife, Ginger Brininstool — also on LSU’s biology faculty — saw a newspaper item about water leases being available for an alternative form of raising oysters. Rather than growing on the bottom, the oysters would grow in baskets at or near the water’s surface. Pollock began raising oysters the following year and went full time in 2017.
At its peak, Pollock’s Triple N Oyster Farm supplied three Baton Rouge restaurants. But, after adding tanks to create an on-site oyster nursery, it became extremely time-consuming, and the weather did not cooperate. His camp flooded five times, and consistently high Mississippi River water levels affected the salinity of Caminada Bay, where he had his oyster lease.
Pollock relinquished his lease and sold his restaurant contracts, but he didn’t give up on oysters altogether.
Pollock thought an inland hatchery could be feasible. In tanks, he could control the salinity, pH, temperature and chemical composition of the water.
He was able to get an affordable lease at the LSU Innovation Park and set up shop using the four 5,000-gallon tanks that formed his oyster nursery on Grand Isle. The system is a closed loop, filtering and reusing all the water.
“We take those adult oysters, and we turn on the music and a little bit of wine and candlelight, and we produce baby oysters from them,” Pollock said. “Those baby oysters, after about two or three weeks, they become oyster larvae, and at that time, we can set those and sell the really small seed (oysters).”
He’s joking about the wine and music. Rather, Pollock grows algae in 800-gallon tanks to feed the oysters. He keeps a small nursery tank on hand but tries to sell the oysters quickly enough that it’s not necessary. Most of his buyers are in Florida.
The goal is to supply the small but growing off-bottom oyster industry and to help the state use oyster reefs to buttress the shrinking coastline.
The same water issues that affected Pollock's coastal operation also affected Grand Isle's Michael C. Voisin Oyster Hatchery, the state’s primary supplier for coastal restoration efforts, said Patrick Banks, assistant secretary for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
A successful inland hatchery is important, he said, because tropical storms disrupt operations at Voisin.
“This idea of the hatchery technology advancing such that you don’t necessarily have to have it on the coast is very attractive to us,” Banks said. “Then, we have sort of an insurance policy in a hatchery like Steve’s. If something happens to our hatchery on the coast, we have this second source of hatchery products to continue the work that we’re doing.
“I’m really rooting for him, because it’s something that’s needed in Louisiana.”
The technology hasn’t been perfected.
Pollock’s oyster larvae aren’t developing as rapidly as they should, and Pollock is working with Voisin and two coastal hatcheries in Alabama, all of which use sea water, to determine what might be missing in his tank water. His hatchery is in a proof-of-concept stage, Pollock said.
“It’s definitely a work in progress,” he said.
This effort, however, is more in Pollock’s wheelhouse than being a commercial oyster fisherman. His background is in research, both at LSU and Stanford University.
“So, it’s been a very natural change for me to go out of the water, sell the farm and move to the hatchery, where I can use the scientific background and training to do some good for the oyster industry not just in the state but also the Gulf of Mexico coastal area and beyond,” he said.