Image: John Supan
Gerald Herbert  /  AP
John Supan, a marine biologist with the Louisiana Sea Grant of Louisiana State University, who specializes in oyster farming research, holds a sample as he checks oysters in his hatchery in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in Grand Isle, La., Aug. 9.
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updated 8/20/2010 6:55:25 AM ET 2010-08-20T10:55:25

Biologist John Supan thinks he has developed what may be the holy grail for oyster lovers: a hardy breed of the delectable shellfish that stays fat enough for consumers to eat throughout the year.

And unlike many oysters across the Gulf Coast, ruined by BP's massive oil spill and the fresh water poured in to fight it, Supan's oysters are all alive.

Now, nearly four months after the spill, Supan's oysters may offer the Gulf oyster industry a chance for a better long-term recovery. But his special breed of modified oysters, which some say are prohibitively expensive, could be a hard sell to an industry reeling from the BP disaster.

Most oystermen agree that few oysters will be harvested from the Gulf Coast in the next year or two, signaling a potential calamity for shucking houses, oyster farmers and people who love a half dozen oysters on the half shell. As much as 65 percent of the nation's oysters come from the Gulf.

Oysters are particularly susceptible to pollution, taking longer than fish or shrimp to clear oil contamination from their bodies.

Supan's oysters are bred for performance, making them more fit to deal with viruses and other contaminants. Being sterile, they don't go through the stress of reproduction, so they stay fat and juicy all year round. Supan says his oysters are sweet, plump and meaty in summertime when other oysters become thin and watery.

But the most crucial advantage this year was their mobility.

Unlike the vast majority of oysters in the Gulf, which spend their lives on the bottoms of bays and sounds, Supan's oysters dangle in the water in cages at a hatchery on the inland side of this island.

'Most important brood of oysters' in Gulf's history?
When the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20 just a few dozen miles from his hatchery, the 57-year-old Louisiana State University oyster biologist evacuated his broods to a research hatchery in Alabama and a wildlife preserve in western Louisiana. Then he brought them back.

"In my opinion, this is the most important brood of oysters in the history of the Gulf of Mexico," Supan says. "But you know, you ask an oysterman that and they will say, 'Huh?'"

He said the day is coming when all the Gulf's oystermen will know what he's talking about.

For three decades, Supan has been developing new oysters by mixing up their chromosomes in a process known as triploid production. He breeds a rare oyster that has extra chromosomes with a normal oyster and produces a sterile hybrid. The process is common on the East and West coasts but still untried in the Gulf, besides Supan's batch.

"I don't know if it's the future with a capital 'THE,' but it's very important," said Bill Walton, an Auburn University shellfish biologist. "It can give you a faster growing oyster. It cuts down production time and it does seem to solve the problem of 'water bellies' in the summer when oysters spawn and you have a tired, thin oyster."

"For the long-term viability of oysters in Louisiana what (the hatchery) is doing is the kind of pioneer work," said Mike Voisin, an oyster processor and leader in the Louisiana oyster industry.

Threats facing oyster industry
The industry in Louisiana faces daunting threats from the oil pollution, oyster diseases and pressure from state and federal officials who want to reclaim lost marshland by opening up the Mississippi River even more often. If that happens, traditional oyster grounds could be ruined in many of the inland bays where they are grown today.

Helen Skansi, a 75-year-old Plaquemines Parish oyster company owner with more than 1,000 leased acres, is painfully aware of the problems.

"Things will never be the same with the bedding grounds they had before with the oil," she said.

Kenneth Fox, who leases 15,000 acres of state waters to grow his oysters, is equally concerned.

"I lost 95 percent of my leases with this oil spill," he said. "Everything is dead on the west side of the river."

Asked about Supan's super oysters, however, he was unconvinced.

"I think the research is great, and I think what he's doing is going to be a big help. But that is going to be a costly process."

Ready for distrubution
Supan would like to see his special oyster larvae distributed through hatcheries across the Gulf to oyster growers. He said he could start distributing the larvae now.

Image: John Supan inspecting algae growing tanks
Patrick Semansky  /  AP
In this July 1 picture, Louisiana State University assistant research professor John Supan inspects algae growing tanks used to feed oyster larvae in his bivalve hatchery at the Louisiana Wildlife and FIsheries Laboratory in Grand Isle, La. Unlike traditional oysters that spawn and get skinny in the summer, Supan has developed sterile, "super" crossbreeds that remain fat, making them one of the best hopes for restoring Louisiana's oyster industry.

But a lot has to happen for that to materialize. Ideally, the sterile oysters would be grown in cages in special areas designated as marine farms. And a host of permitting and zoning issues would have to be resolved.

Growing oysters the way Supan does is tricky. They are raised in structures propped up off the water bottom. That requires new harvesting equipment. Oystermen currently use mechanical devices like plows to scour their catch from the Gulf floor. It also would require new permits.

It takes about two years for an oyster to grow to market size.

Once the special summer oysters grow to adult size, then the oyster growers would have to find buyers. Typically, a dozen oysters cost about $12 at an oyster bar on the Gulf Coast. Supan said a cost analysis has not been done to figure out how much the summer oysters would cost. He says the market would take care of that.

'Big investment on a gamble'
"That's a big investment on a gamble," Fox said of Supan's experiments. "I'm not saying it won't happen one day, but the way Louisiana is set up, it's going to be hard to make happen. Half the people in the industry would have to get out of the business for the other half to make a profit."

Still, some institutions that fund research are persuaded that Supan's technique holds promise.

Supan's research has been backed by federal and state grants over his 30-year career. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently awarded Supan and other researchers a $250,000 grant to develop more hatchery technology.

Inside his algae room, Supan looks like a winemaker as he surveys tanks of algae he feeds to his oysters. The bacteria grows under ultraviolet light.

"It takes a wet green thumb to grow algae," he said. "You got to be patient with it. It's very intuitive. Just like growing a garden. Some people say they talk to their house plants; well, my algae and myself have conversations all the time."

Supan has big plans.

He hopes the state will build an oyster dock where he can teach oyster farmers to grow oysters in saltier Gulf farms similar to his, where the oysters are reared to market size on platforms that thwart predators such as snails and bottom-feeding fish.

"With all these calamities — the hurricanes and the oil spill — we're five years behind schedule," he said.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Grim inventory of wildlife claimed by Gulf spill

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  1. Dead fish float along the waterways at North of Point a la Hache Marina, La. on July 10. It is unclear what killed the fish and Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries is investigating. (P.J. Hahn / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. The remains of a dead pelican are seen on Raccoon Island, the largest pelican rookery in Louisiana. Rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina, it was home to more than 60,000 pelicans, but since the oil spill mature pelicans are scarce. Instead, there are thousands of dead birds and emaciated and abandoned juvenile and baby birds. (Andy Levin / Polaris) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Crews found about 130 dead birds and 15 live birds affected by oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill on Monday behind Louisiana's Chandeleur Islands. These workers were seen preparing to lay oil boom around an island in St. Bernard Parish, La. Wednesday. (Patrick Semansky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. The LaFontaine family of Waveland, Miss., find a horseshoe crab dead amid globs of oil on the beach of its town July 7. Numerous dead horseshoe crabs were found along the beach as their populations are thought to be declining world wide due to harvesting, gathering by humans and habitat destruction, like that caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (Bevil Knapp / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Scientists are seeing early signs that the massive Gulf spill is altering the food web, by killing or tainting creatures that form the foundation of marine life -- such as this dead pyrosome, spotted June 17 by a University of California Santa Barbara team in an oil slick near the site of the Deepwater Horizon rig -- and spurring the growth of others more suited to a fouled environment. (University of California Santa Barbara Department of Earth Science / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. An agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service puts a dead sea turtle into a garbage back at night on Orange Beach, Ala., on June 16. It is undetermined if the turtle death was caused by the oil leaked from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (Dan Anderson / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A dead crab sits among oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on a beach in Grand Terre Island, Louisiana on June 9. (Lee Celano / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Biologists from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries recover a dead dolphin off of Grand Isle. The scientists towed the dolphin to shore as a thunderstorm was approaching. Further testing will determine if its death was due to exposure to toxins from the oil spill. (Carolyn Cole / LA Times via Polaris) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A dead Northern Gannet covered in oil lies along Grand Isle Beach in Grand Isle, La. on May 21. A month after the well blowout and rig explosion that unleashed the catastrophic spill, sheets of rust-colored heavy oil started to clog fragile marshlands on the fringes of the Mississippi Delta, damaging fishing grounds and wildlife. (Sean Gardner / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A dead jelly fish floats in oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill on June 7 in the Gulf of Mexico south of Venice, La. (Eric Gay / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Dead fish sit on a boom in place to help shield marshes impacted by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in Pass a Loutre, La., May 22. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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Video: Oyster workers lost jobs, but not hope

  1. Transcript of: Oyster workers lost jobs, but not hope

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: Tonight's MAKING A DIFFERENCE report has to do with many of you, our viewers, who've stepped up and made a difference when they saw the reports we aired about folks losing a livelihood, an entire way of life in the gulf because of all that oil. The Ameripure Oyster Company in the tiny town of Franklin , Louisiana , was the subject of one of our reports. They had to shut down operations a month ago and lay off 43 workers. It's been a tough time, but the response they've received from people, including our viewers, has left them amazed. NBC 's Michelle Kosinski has our MAKING A DIFFERENCE report.

    MICHELLE KOSINSKI reporting: It is a strange sort of reunion.

    Mr. PAT FAHEY: "Good luck, and please accept my gift."

    KOSINSKI: One they hardly expected in these silent workrooms.

    Mr. FAHEY: You lifted a lot of oysters for those guys, and they're giving you a little love back.

    KOSINSKI: Every one of them here at Ameripure Oysters laid off for a month now. But on this 100-degree day, they are celebrating the work of the human heart from strangers miles away.

    Unidentified Woman #1: There you go.

    KOSINSKI: We told you their story the day they lost their jobs, met LaToya Wilson , cutting out the not-so-little things like her one-year-old's birthday party. That story did something. The letters started coming, the prayers, donations.

    Ms. LaTOYA WILSON: The enclosed check is to help you in any way you feel the need.

    KOSINSKI: For LaToya , yes, it was the difference that uncanceled her baby's party.

    Ms. WILSON: I couldn't believe how many people reached out, stepped up.

    Mr. FAHEY: Putting food on the table, paying for the kids' new school supplies.

    KOSINSKI: And today owner Pat Fahey read a letter from viewer Dan Gladding in Virginia ...

    Mr. FAHEY: "And to that end, I want to help and make a difference."

    KOSINSKI: ...who sent them all of his overtime pay for the last three months, thousands of dollars.

    Mr. DAN GLADDING: It just hit me that that's what I needed to do, and I didn't hesitate for a second, and I just did it. And I felt great every moment since I did it. I honestly did.

    KOSINSKI: What that means is a check for everyone. Brenda Williams was down to her last $4.

    Ms. BRENDA WILLIAMS: I almost cried. I don't want to sound like that, but, yeah, I almost cried.

    KOSINSKI: And in rolled a shipment of frozen fish, a gift from one of Ameripure 's former suppliers.

    Mr. GIB MIGLIANO (Save on Seafood Company): A bunch of us people here got together and decided we needed to help those people out in their time of need.

    KOSINSKI: These donations will soon become school supplies and baby shoes, and tomorrow's dinner.

    Mr. FAHEY: It tells me the human heart is still alive and beating.

    KOSINSKI: And giving without hesitation. Michelle Kosinski , NBC News, Franklin, Louisiana.

    WILLIAMS: And a final note. There are many ways to help the good folks at Ameripure and elsewhere in the gulf. You can find resources for doing just that on our Web site . That's nightly.msnbc.com.

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: That, for us, is our broadcast for this Thursday night. Thank you for being here with us. I'm Brian Williams . We all hope to see you right back here tomorrow evening. Good night.

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