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Dispatches

Oysters, Cornelius Völker, 2002. Courtesy the artist and Hosfelt Gallery.

Reconsider the Oyster

Tracking a single oyster from the Gulf to Bourbon Street, to a 1,300-ton pile of shells, provides a tour through Louisiana’s precarious coastal economy.

Along a road that follows the Mississippi River’s snaking incursion into the Gulf of Mexico, 63 miles southeast of New Orleans, in Buras, La., sits the largest pile of oyster shells in the United States. The faintly putrescent mountain is part of an oyster-shell recycling program that seeks to return the invertebrate’s casing, long cast aside in the trash, to the sea.

The journey from oysterman’s yield to restaurant to Buras and back to the marsh is a long one, and it has as its mission the rejuvenation of the state’s struggling oyster industry and the regeneration of its very coastline.

Our emptied oyster shells, now slowly curing in Buras, will one day be part of a man-made reef, reincarnated at once as meat, luxury, and coastal protector. The boons of the oyster’s fleshy body extend far beyond the fishing industry.

 

Iconic, cool, and now slitheringly elusive: Louisiana’s oysters, mostly concentrated around the sweltering music- and personality-fueled New Orleans scene, are the stuff of legends.

A June 9, 1920, edition of the Illinois True Republican tells of bombs exploding over Baton Rouge as licensed oyster operators went to war with oyster pirates—unlicensed poachers stealing wares from sanctioned fishermen. Fast-forward almost 100 years, and passions still run high. This makes sense, considering that Louisiana sold about $81.9 million worth of oysters in 2013, accounting for about 7.2 percent of the state’s $1.13 billion income from fisheries and wildlife enterprises in 2013, according to statistics from Louisiana State University’s agriculture center.

In the years since the 2010 oil spill at the BP PLC rig called Deepwater Horizon, Louisiana’s oyster yield has plummeted, leaving many fishermen without work. The recycling program whose shells are piled high in Buras is designed to bring back the oysters and the fishermen’s livelihoods.

But there is another reason for this project: Parts of Louisiana are sinking into the Gulf. To stop it, the state has a master plan to restore the coast, creating reefs from oyster shells, as well as barrier islands and restored marshland. This should block Louisiana’s populated land from the harshest effects of the sea’s violent surges.

Jakov Jurisic is a third-generation oysterman who hasn’t sold a single oyster in four years. He remembers it clearly, he tells me as we stand in his boat in Empire, a dockyard close to Buras and about an hour south of New Orleans, during a swelteringly humid July day in which the heat isn’t quite cut by the pounding rain outside—that April day in the bay, after the oil spill, when everything screeched to a grinding halt. Jurisic’s hair is graying, black streaks between silver, and he’s tall enough to have to duck significantly as we enter his boat, the Vinka Ann. Jurisic has a cautious smile and a Croatian accent that has endured, thickly, despite his long tenure in the US.

In the aftermath of the spill, Jurisic and other colleagues joined Vessels of Opportunity, a program in which BP temporarily employed fishermen to assist the company with the cleanup. Eight weeks later, cleaning efforts—and Jurisic’s work with the magnanimous Vessels of Opportunity— stopped. Jurisic survived on his savings, and when those dried up, on settlement money from BP—although he told me that he’s received just over half of what the company owes him. (Geoff Morrell, BP senior vice president for US communications and external affairs, had no comment.) These days, Jurisic is working on overhauling his boat (he still hopes to restore his oyster business), and he serves on the State of Louisiana’s Oyster Task Force, a group that monitors and advises the regulation of the oyster industry, in hopes of bringing it back to life.

 

The road to New Orleans from Grand Isle, La. Credit: Arielle Milkman

“It is now comparatively easy to eat this two-valved mollusk anywhere,” MFK Fisher notes in Consider the Oyster, her deliciously slim, 1941 love letter to the oyster, “without thought of the dangers it has run in its few years. Its chilly, delicate gray body slips into a stew pan or under a broiler or alive down a red throat, and it is done.”

But perhaps we should think of the very real dangers the oyster runs, and what that means for those tied to its slippery economy.

Only 40 percent of the shells plucked from Louisiana’s waters return to water, meaning that 60 percent end their torpid careers in booze-soaked dumpsters on Bourbon Street and, eventually, in landfills. Biologists think oyster shell is the best surface for new oysters to grow on, so returning the shell to the water may help their population grow.

In 2012, Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority agreed to a long-term plan to restore the coast by building more land and marsh in areas where it’s disappearing. Meanwhile, the shell-recycling program is organized by the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, a non-profit advocacy organization that supports the state’s master plan for the coast. CRCL hopes that through recycling, the state’s oysters will at long last find their way home.

From the raw, salty Gulf waters to the fishing dredges, through oystermen’s coolers to Bourbon Street’s famed oyster bars, then heaped in a 1,300-ton pile of slowly curing shells 63 miles south of New Orleans, and finally to a newly engineered reef in Biloxi Marsh, in front of Lake Pontchartrain, the shell moves slowly toward reunion with salt water and anthropogenic purpose.

In the spirit of reinvigorating Fisher’s 1941 call to consider this lumpen, shell-dwelling being, I decided to track the oyster’s politically and bodily fraught journey back to the water. Because the oyster, in all its simplicity, has become a symbol and a driver for something much larger that’s happening on the coast of Louisiana.

Oyster fisheries—and their difficulties—sit at the nexus of an ongoing struggle and collaboration between the state, big oil, and longstanding cultural practices. Coastal dwellers have long histories of eating meat from the water and extracting oil from deep seas. Oystermen blame the state and the oil companies for damaging the habitats on which their industry relies, while companies like Shell now exist in a landscape of large-scale corporate philanthropy, perhaps in efforts to remediate the industry’s public relations problems after environmental disasters. Louisianans are painfully aware of how fragile coastal life can be—a fact cut into high relief by Hurricane Katrina and its aftershocks and now underscored by the slow sinking of parts of the coast into the water.

Tracking an oyster seemed easy enough before I began. My first problem was finding one.

“Danger is everywhere for [the oyster], and extermination lurks,” Fisher writes. “… She has eight enemies, not counting man, who is the greatest, since he protects her from the others only to eat her himself.”

Jurisic hadn’t successfully fished in four years. Sam Slavich, another oysterman who serves with Jurisic on the state’s Oyster Task Force, said the waters were too rough to take out a layperson like me—a potential liability. And so, after little luck with the Gulf’s barren waters, I found, on a late November day on Grand Isle, a barrier island about 80 miles south of New Orleans in Barataria Bay, the source of some of Louisiana’s most forward-thinking shellfish production and a symptom of the economic difficulty of fishing in today’s waters: completely man-made oysters.

Iconic, cool, and now slitheringly elusive: Louisiana’s oysters are the stuff of legends.

If you want to drive to Grand Isle from New Orleans, you will take some combination of I-90 and LA-1, heading south for about two hours. At some point, you will come to a toll that announces the start of a bridge that is six miles long. After you hand three dollars to the cheerful attendant in the chair, you will rustle along in your laughably small rental car, realizing uncomfortably that this whole time that you thought you were on safe, dry land really you had been driving along a narrow strip of grass that plummets suddenly into the Gulf. Still, you will propel along at the 50 miles an hour speed limit until you come to a tiny “10 miles per hour” sign. Slow down with a screech just in time to make a 90-degree turn to the left and narrowly avoid launching yourself and your vehicle over the guardrail and into the oily Gulf waters.

Grand Isle is a dream once you arrive, rattled but none the worse for the wear—a marshland vision in Technicolor in the late November light. The hotels here are small and modest, and the giant stilts holding tiny buildings 30 feet in the air are really the only things that relate the experience of hurricane-induced community trauma.

I’m on the island to meet Jules Melancon, a third-generation oysterman who is farming the bivalves these days from seed, which he buys from Louisiana State University’s sea lab.

“There’s no oysters out there,” Melancon tells me. “We started feeling it before Katrina, that the oysters were on the downhill… And then after Katrina, it kind of phased out the oysters, about two-thirds of them, and then in 2008 the oysters started coming back strong, and then we had the BP spill.”

Like many in his profession, Melancon thought about getting out of the business in 2010, but decided to take a chance on the new technique instead. Melancon’s adaptation to farming oysters instead of finding them makes him unique in the state. He tells me he is the only person in Louisiana to translate his business from traditional oyster dredging to a fully controlled, cage-farmed crop.

Melancon is affable on the day we meet. Towering above me and carrying an orange basket containing a smattering of plump oysters, he instructs me, in a rumbling, deep-country Louisiana accent, to chew the oyster slowly, taking note of the sweetness of the eye in contrast to the saltiness of the rest of the flesh. Unwittingly, I soon find myself engaged in an oyster-off. I gingerly eat one of the plump muscles, and he slurps one down and cracks open another one, holding it out to me with insistent precision. I eat it, my mouth watering with high salinity, expecting the challenge to be over, but he has consumed another and opened one more. When I protest after four oysters, he glances at me sideways and gulps down the remaining 10 without a word.

Melancon’s plot is a far cry from the old way of fishing oysters. From start to finish, these oysters are man-made, nothing natural about them. He starts with the larvae known as seed oysters, the size of a red pinprick, purchased from LSU at $1,000 per 100,000, which will grow, in one of his plastic tubs pumped with raw salt water from the bay, into little baby oysters about one inch long. After three to four months Melancon thins his growing crop and transfers the ones that are left to a cage, which will be placed in the Gulf waters about four miles from the spot we are standing and left there while the oysters mature for eight to 10 more months.

The whole process—from seed to market—takes about a year, significantly less than the two plus years it takes oysters to mature in the wild. This is because the LSU seed Melancon works with is a new kind of cross-breed engineered by LSU Professor John Supan. It’s called a triploid oyster because it has three sets of chromosomes, not two.

Once a week Melancon drives his oysters up to New Orleans in an old crawfish icebox strapped to his truck. He will sell them to a few places around town, most notably Pêche, one of the restaurants that participate in CRCL’s recycling program.

Melancon believes that oyster shell recycling is a positive initiative, but he doesn’t think the state should have control over where the shell returns. “Wherever the shell came from in the first place it should be returned to there in the same spot,” he tells me. “The way they’re doing it now [in CRCL’s oyster shell recycling program], they’re just giving it to the state and putting it on a state plot.”

Tracking an oyster seemed easy enough before I began. My first problem was finding one.

Melancon is concerned, perhaps rightly so, that recycling initiatives will tip control of oyster-fishing areas into the hands of the state, not fishermen. The reef CRCL is planning to build with its oyster shells will not be available to oystermen for public fishing.

Discomfort with state regulation of natural resources is a common feeling among oystermen, and Melancon’s anxiety is rooted in historical distrust of state intervention.

Slavich tells me that the process of recycling oyster shells is as old as the historical record. The ancient Greeks threw empty oyster shells in the water and noticed that oyster spat—baby oysters ready to end their free-swimming larval stage—adhered to the recycled shells, producing a new crop.

According to this logic, the oyster shell recycling program simply reflects new state regulation of a process that Louisianans have been doing informally for over 150 years, in slowly decreasing numbers. Somewhere along the line, it became cheaper for restaurants and large seafood processors to dump their shells in the trash, interrupting the cycle Slavich describes as natural. Slavich, for his part, is disappointed that the recovery from the BP oil spill has taken so long. He says that some in the oyster community blame the state for pumping fresh water into the coastal waterways in attempts to flush the oil from the marshlands. Oysters are highly sensitive to salinity levels, and their growth is inhibited by freshwater.

Jurisic agrees, and blames the state. “The state of Louisiana is our biggest adversary,” he tells me. Jurisic fears that Louisiana’s master plan to restore the coast will destroy habitats for oyster growth in the short term, and says that the state has not been responsive to oystermen’s concerns about the effects of freshwater diversions.

“If the master plan [to restore the coast] is implemented… the east bank of the Mississippi River, where we have our biggest growing and best, second to none, growing areas in the world—it’s a question of whether there will be anything left,” he said. “You can yell, bitch, you can scream bloody murder, they don’t listen.”’

 

Jules Melancon shucks one of his Caminada Bay oysters. Credit: Arielle Milkman

“Down South there is a long marble or hardwood counter between the customer and the oysterman, sloping toward the latter. He stands there, opening the shells with a skill undreamed of by an ordinary man and yet always with a few cuts showing on his fingers, putting the open oysters carefully, automatically, on a slab of ice in front him,” Fisher writes of New Orleans oyster culture.

Once Melancon’s oysters make their way into the icebox strapped to his truck, he drives them to Pêche, a boutique seafood restaurant on Magazine Street.

Ryan Pruitt, Pêche’s partner and chef, usually buys about a thousand of Melancon’s crop per week. From there, Pruitt and his team serve the oysters raw on a half shell. Pruitt tells me that his business seeks to highlight the diversity of seafood flavors in the Gulf.

“I think for too long oysters in the Gulf were treated as just a commodity crop, and the diversity of all the oysters in Louisiana was being buried under the idea that Gulf oysters are just kind of workhorse oysters,” Pruitt tells me. “You don’t really stop to think about how they taste.”

Three years ago, Pruitt started Pêche to change that.

The restaurant now sells around 5,000 oysters a week from Melancon and other sources, contributing around 12,000 shells to the recycling initiative every week (that’s a drop in the bucket compared to what larger bars like Bourbon House and Acme Oyster House go through).

“Recycling has a sexier story when it’s tied to an oyster bar,” Pruitt says. “You can see a direct relationship. The oyster is here, it’s opened, it goes on a plate. When that’s done it goes back into the water at some point. So this creates a neat kind of package.”

 

“[The oyster’s] life has been thoughtless but no less full of danger, and now that it is over we are perhaps the better for it,” Fisher writes.

If the oyster’s life is thoughtless, its death certainly is not. At least one young man who works in the dark, early hours of the morning, has thought about the cycle of this invertebrate quite a bit.

Ronnie Peterson, 28, is Phoenix Recycling’s oyster pick-up specialist. From 2 a.m. on, five days a week, it is Peterson’s job to pick up hundreds of oyster shells from 25 oyster bars and restaurants in New Orleans. When we meet in July, he has been doing this for just over a year—and as the sole implementer of a $1 million program designed to put Louisiana back on track with oyster restoration, he is kept busy.

I meet Peterson at the corner of Bourbon and Iberville. At 4:40 a.m., most of the city is quite dead—ghostly in the half-light with a sliver of a moon. But Bourbon Street maintains the same level of buzzing energy it had yesterday at noon.

Drunken mobs rove, zombie-like. Jazz blares from the Mango-Mango place on the corner. And among all of the noise, Peterson is waiting, a small smile on his face, red hat and headlamp on his head, in a parking space he’s saved for me. As I pull alongside the row of cars to parallel park, a cab pulls up directly behind me, stopping me from making the backward move I had planned. I can see Peterson in the rearview mirror, hassling the cab driver, letting him know he needs to move back to make space for me.

“You might want to park more straight, they don’t drive so good here.”

Once I get out of my car, Peterson shows me the lay of the land. With three restaurants to collect from, the Bourbon and Iberville stop is his largest one. This lot has 14 bins full of oyster shells, each the size of an industrial 50-gallon trash can, and as I watch he switches out the full purple recycling bins with empty ones, expertly stacking his catch in his truck.

“Recycling has a sexier story when it’s tied to an oyster bar.”

The whole process takes him about half an hour, and he’s asking me questions about my writing as he goes along, using the weight of the rear bin to give himself momentum to drag the front one along.

Peterson’s job with Phoenix is harshly physical and demands long hours. The paycheck doesn’t come with benefits. But he has young kids at home, and he’s happy to have a steady job that pays reasonably well.

As we get ready to pull away from the alley behind Bourbon House, a group of white tourists blocks our way in the street. Peterson, who is black, asks them to move, and gets a look from one.

“No problem, brother,” the man says, before continuing to block the truck’s path.

After rolling up the window, Peterson laughs it off with me. The constant tourism—particularly the racial micro-aggressions and the never-ending, urinate-in-the-streets zombie crawl on Bourbon Street—bothers him, he says, but he gets by through letting it all roll off him with the bounce of the truck. Next up is Drago’s, which has a significantly smaller haul. Only one of the bins waiting for Peterson is full; he takes that one and leaves the rest. The sky is rising into a lighter shade of purple as we round the bend to Pêche.

Peterson likes the silence and strong independence of the truck best of all. He likes being out at dawn in these parts of New Orleans. Moving quickly in the half-light, Peterson is the only being in flux on mostly quiet streets, soaking in velvet air that melts, softly, with a heavy coating of humidity and brine.

Where Bourbon Street smells vaguely like fish, whiskey, urine, and something sharper, musky, humid—and a man urinates in the corner of the alley while I snap a few photos of Peterson pushing full oyster bins—the streets that lie beyond are empty, softly glowing. The time in the truck lets Peterson clear his head and think about what lies beyond New Orleans’s busy tourism corridor.

For the oysters, what lies beyond Peterson’s pickup is a 63-mile trip down to Buras. There they will sit, among the largest pile of oyster shells in the US, as food bacteria attached to their hard exteriors slowly melts away in the sunshine. In Buras, they wait for their next journey, to the water.

 

“Life is hard, we say. An oyster’s life is worse. She lives motionless, soundless, her own cold ugly shape her only dissipation,” Fisher tells us.

I say: If New Orleans is hard, Buras is worse. In Buras, there are bait shops and an advertisement for “Oil Spill Legal Help.” Mobile homes high on stilts gather in groups near a sparsely populated fishing dock. A fishy, briny smell emanates from the pile of oyster shells, which takes out about half of a fenced-off lot. Piles farther from the mobile homes are white—in contrast to the muskier, wetter, and fresher-looking clumps of shells closer in. The shells make a porcelain crunch and give way as I clamber to the top of the mountain for a better view of the dilapidated docking areas and treeless marshland. It’s standard practice to cure oysters for about six months, stirring them occasionally, to ensure they are free of food and bacteria. The process is analogous to composting, CRCL’s former Restoration Program Director Hilary Collis told me.

Across the way, Jennifer Riley, 30, surveys the pile from Joshua’s Bar and Bait Shop. She has lived in Buras for most of her life, and although she and her husband are not in the fishing industry, they have noticed more tension since the oil spill and the subsequent BP settlement. “Everybody’s fussing, and they’re always mad,” she says of her neighbors. “Before the settlement they never had no money, and most of the people that got money from BP didn’t live in no million-dollar homes and no hundred-thousand-dollar homes before all of this.”

“We live in mobile homes. I just feel like BP overpaid a lot of people and underpaid a lot of people,” Riley says.

 

“They rocked quietly all night, while the air moaned above them, and in the morning they saw that they were floating above oyster beds as perfect as something in a dream,” Fisher writes of two boys who spent a night trapped on the water during a Chesapeake Bay storm.

On a Friday in late November, I board a volunteer bus to the Buras fishing dock, where CRCL has stored 1,300 tons of oyster shells. We—about 15 Shell Oil workers and employees of the restaurant company Dickie Brennan & Co., plus four journalists who are along for the ride—are going to divide the carapaces into much smaller, more manageable chunks and bag them, completing the last step in the oyster shell’s preparation before it meets the water again.

Several of the Shell employees, wearing bright yellow company T-shirts, grumble as they fill out liability release waivers for the volunteer work. “Just a little waiver, yeah, that’s just what they said when we signed the thing to work at Shell,” I hear, to good-natured snickers from further back in the bus.

Excitement mounts as we prepare to take off for the coast. Our bus, like most things on this endeavor, has been paid for by Shell, and it’s carrying several major oyster and oil industry personalities. Dickie Brennan himself and Steve Pettus, partners in a number of restaurants including Bourbon House, are aboard, as is Rick Tallant, Shell’s asset manager for the Gulf of Mexico and a strong advocate for Shell’s donation to CRCL.

The mixture of people on the bus is a good example of the longstanding and curious collaborations between the oil and fishing industries in Louisiana. It may seem surprising, at first glance, that the state’s fishermen would support an industry that has so substantially affected the landscape of its fisheries, in recent history for the worse.

But, as Shell drilling superintendent Michael Guarisco reminds me in Buras while he shovels shell into a bag, these industries have shared waters since the end of World War II, when the oil industry began drilling in the Gulf. Many oil workers are also fishermen on the side, and the oil industry has often provided aid to fishermen. For instance, after Hurricane Katrina, ice was extremely scarce in the New Orleans area. Shell provided fishermen with ice houses so they could keep working.

Guarisco’s personal history is a case in point. He grew up in Morgan City, La., the home of the annual Shrimp and Petroleum Festival (as one might expect, a celebration of all things fishing and oil), and his wife, Whitney, is a Dickie Brennan’s employee and the coordinator of today’s volunteer bus.

Pettus, a longtime restaurateur and lawyer who comes from a family of oil-company workers, says it’s past time for Louisiana to focus on recycling efforts. Louisiana has long been the largest producer and consumer of oysters in the nation, yet it’s been the last major oyster state to initiate a comprehensive shell recycling program, many years behind recycling efforts in the Chesapeake Bay and Tampa, Fla.

In the early 2000s, Louisiana’s recycling efforts were derailed by Hurricane Katrina. “There was a program that was initiated right before Hurricane Katrina to recycle glass; they were going to take bottles, crush them into little beads, and bag them up and use them to make levies because they don’t degrade,” Pettus says, staring out the window as we speed toward Buras, passing ships visible on the Mississippi River to our left.

All of those projects, including any attempted organized oyster shell recycling, fell away in the chaos and infrastructure damage of Hurricane Katrina. If you ask Pettus, Louisiana is only now ready to make the high-cost initial investments that are needed to restore its disappearing coastline.

Kimberly Davis Reyher, CRCL’s executive director, agrees. Moreover, in her eyes, the BP oil spill’s nasty aftershocks have led to unexpected positive consequences. “The silver lining of the oil spill is there’s going to be funding to restore the coast,” Reyher said. Also importantly, Reyher and the others say public interest is now focused on environmental issues that it wasn’t before the devastation caused by the oil spill.

At a forum CRCL organized in August, all four of the state’s gubernatorial candidates said that coastal restoration is among the top issues for the state of Louisiana and agreed to use a science-based strategy to restore the coast—a huge victory for CRCL’s campaign to raise awareness of coastal issues. John Bel Edwards, who won the election later this fall, has committed to finding permanent funding for the state’s master plan to restore the coast.

When we arrive in Buras, CRCL’s volunteer coordinators explain the process to us. We’re to attack the pile en masse, shoveling shells into mesh bags about two feet long surrounded by PVC pipes for structure and stability and placing them on pallets, where they will rest until CRCL bags enough shell to create a half-mile-long reef. It’s a pleasant, breezy 70 degrees on the coast; sun glints off the shells as we shovel, slowly removing sweatshirts as the day heats up.

CRCL needs to bag 800 tons of shell to create the reef in the Biloxi Marsh; at this rate, they will need to coordinate 30 more volunteer days like this one.

When Reyher and I leave the crew around 11:30, after working for about two hours, they are nowhere near finished.

Neither is the oyster’s journey to the water. CRCL still needs to navigate state permits, work with an engineer on reef design, and coordinate logistics (including those 30 volunteer days) before sinking the shells into the water in the spring.

From a restoration standpoint, this initiative is a drop in the bucket. Reyher has a long-term vision to create more marshland and barrier islands, protecting Louisiana’s coast from the tempestuous waters that lie beyond. This will happen through massive engineering feats, not three-hour volunteer stints. Creating and destroying, the state of Louisiana will produce nature—often in conflict with the fishermen who have long navigated the coast.

But Reyher likes the oyster project because it engages those who might not normally think about coastal restoration. “I like recycling because it’s something immediate that the public can participate in,” Reyher tells me. “Most of these projects [to restore the coast] will be large-scale earth-moving projects. It’s hard for people to be part of that, because it takes engineers and design firms.”

When they rest in the Biloxi Marsh, the oysters growing on the shells that started out at Melancon’s farm won’t be available for public fishing. But Reyher hopes that the larvae produced on the reef will encourage oyster promulgation in other places, contributing in some small way to the Gulf waters’ troubled fishing industry.

Jurisic isn’t convinced. In the aftermath of the BP oil spill, the oyster task force he sits on wrote a letter with recommendations to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who will leave office in January. The oystermen never received a response from the state, and Jurisic hasn’t been asked to weigh in on CRCL’s recycling project.

For the oyster, going home means contributing to a changing vision of Louisiana’s coast, one that is engineered as much by big business, state interests, and more localized fishing practice as it is by natural processes.

For now, the oysters sit in Buras—close to the water, but not there yet.