The New Louisiana Oyster

Words by Meghan Holmes
Photos by Randy Schmidt

On a sunny September day in Grand Isle, Louisiana, the Guerreros sort through a recent oyster haul. Patriarch Marcos, his two sons, and his daughter-in-law crowd the back of the boat working methodically, transferring full baskets to a large, adjacent cooler on wheels. Marcos’ son Bruno cleans each basket of oysters and then they’re stacked, flat side up, in boxes that will be in New Orleans later that afternoon.

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There’s a long tradition of oystering off the coast of South Louisiana and across much of the Gulf coast, but the Guerrero’s oysters are different. They grow in floating cages in Caminada Bay, where Grand Isle’s Port Commission leases land for Louisiana’s first commercially farmed oysters. The family uses techniques common throughout the rest of the coastal United States, but new in the Southeast, to produce oysters with a flavor unique to the bay. “This is hard work. We are some of the first people using this equipment down here, so we are also learning as we go, but we think our product is special,” says Marcos Guerrero.

The Guerrero’s Grand Isle Premium oysters grow in the bay’s first twelve inches of water, where nutrients thrive; as a result, their oysters take about half as long to mature when compared to those that grow in deeper water, where heavier sediments sink and give Gulf oysters their characteristic, earthy flavor. “Our oysters have floral notes, with a hint of salt and a meaty, firm texture. We help each oyster develop a cup-like shape by routinely flipping our cages and running the oysters through a machine that removes any rough edges. This shape produces a thicker, meatier, oyster that also develops more flavor from the surrounding oyster liquor,” Marcos explains.

Since the Guerreros took up oystering, they’re eating a lot more oysters. “We had a lot of seafood in Ecuador, and sometimes we prepare our oysters in that style, like when we make ceviche,” says Bruno. “More often than not, we eat them the way people do in Louisiana.” Bruno likes his oysters raw. “Sometimes I’ll take just a drop of lime, which is common in Ecuador. Our oysters are special, though,” he says. “You have to imagine waiting years for something, and having no idea what it will taste like. We spent so much time on this product before we knew what it could truly be.”

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Marcos farmed organic sugar cane in Ecuador for fifteen years and moved to Louisiana intending to start an organic farm with his family. He looked for years, ultimately unable to find suitable land, and eventually starting a construction business while his sons went to school in Baton Rouge. The family now simultaneously oysters and runs a construction company, spending 2-3 days a week on the coast and the rest of the week in Baton Rouge, currently working to repair homes and businesses damaged in recent catastrophic flooding.

In 2012 Marcos read a story about the Louisiana Sea Grant’s oyster research lab and hatchery, which produces millions of oysters a year for commercial purposes. “I wanted to do something sustainable and I couldn’t find any way to do that in agriculture. We grew up on the coast in Ecuador and aquaculture felt right,” he shares. “We started talking with the Port Commission and they agreed to grant us a lease. It was two years after that before we got our first oysters from the hatchery and actually began farming.”

A small portion of the Sea Grant’s hatchery oysters will go to farmers like the Guerreros. Most will go into public lease areas, where traditional oystermen with private leases typically gather spat to populate their own oyster beds. The hatchery’s oyster stock has been pivotal in the wake of the BP oil spill, which devastated many existing oyster populations. “We were lucky enough to start our business after the spill, but we have plans to move all of our cages by boat to another bay if a spill happens near Grand Isle. We have a contingency plan because we can move our stock,” says Bruno.

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The family also hopes that their unique method of growing oysters might save them during a hurricane. “We can sink the cages down to the bottom and hope the storm passes over, but there’s a chance they could end up buried in sediment. There’s always a risk when you’re harvesting your product from the natural environment,” says Bruno, something well known to traditional oystermen who have seen their entire catch disappear overnight after a year or two of time invested.

The Guerreros currently have nearly 300 cages holding hundreds of thousands of oysters in the bay, and hope to expand to 500 cages in the coming years. The majority of their oysters end up in New Orleans, at John Besh restaurants around the city, as well as Elysian Seafood at the Saint Roch Market, and the Curious Oyster Company at Dryades Public Market. “We want to expand but we also want the state to set aside more water for more aquaculture,” says Marcos. “This could be the way of the future to maintain oyster populations and continue to meet the demand for oysters across the country.”

Oysters play a pivotal role in the cuisine of South Louisiana, and it’s impossible to imagine life here without them. The Guerreros present a future with myriad oyster varieties in the Southeast, each with its own flavor that rivals and even surpasses that of oysters further north. These oysters won’t replace tried and true, traditionally farmed oysters, but they will give us more ways to cook, eat, and enjoy one of the sea’s greatest gifts.