DINING | Oyster Innovators
A Louisiana father and daughter team have embraced a relatively new way of farming oysters and finding great success.
A native New Orleanian, Poppy Tooker has spent her life devoted to the cultural essence that food brings to Louisiana, a topic she explores weekly on her NPR-affiliated radio show, Louisiana Eats! From farmers markets to the homes and restaurants where our culinary traditions are revered and renewed, Poppy lends the voice of an insider to interested readers everywhere.
A self-described “oyster whisperer,” Brandi Shelley is bringing change and innovation to a centuries-old Louisiana fishery. Shelley’s family has farmed oysters in Louisiana waterways for more than 50 years. In fact, Shelley Farms Premium Louisiana Oysters, headquartered in Port Sulphur, Louisiana, was the first oyster farm in Plaquemines Parish.
Cheap and plentiful since the early 19th century, Louisiana oysters served as the workhorse of the nation’s oyster industry. In recent years, however, climate change, coastal erosion and man-made measures designed to alleviate Mississippi River flooding have joined together to deal a near fatal blow to a resource that once seemed endless.
In addition to being an oyster fisherman, Shelley’s father, Terry, is the owner and operator of Terry Shelley Shucking House and Oyster Plant.
A longtime advocate for the industry, In the late 1990’s, he fought in the Louisiana legislature to push forward his dual lease claim concept, which allows oyster leases to be established on subsurface land belonging to oil companies, a practice that is now commonplace.
Terry Shelley was quick to see a new kind of oyster farming called cage farming as a way to supplement his traditional oyster farming business and jumped in in a big way, dedicating over 800 acres of oyster lease to the project, the first of its kind in Plaquemines Parish.
With cage farming, floating cages are suspended just under the water’s surface, providing an ideal environment for growing oysters as the water column’s first 12 inches contain the most nutrients. The water itself provides much of the unique floral flavor of these special oysters, which reach maturity without ever touching a muddy bed. The floating cage method encourages rapid growth, allowing oysters to mature in 12 months, compared to wild reef oysters, which take two to three years to reach market size.
Compared to traditional oyster farming — which involves purchasing and then dumping large rocks onto a bed of oyster seeds — cage farming is cheaper and yields oysters year-round.
Brandi Shelley said she always wanted to join the family business, but her father insisted that it was “not a place for a girl,” urging her to go to college instead. Following his advice, she earned a nursing degree and was working in the medical field when her father began cage farming in 2017. Her work was restricted to weekends until finally, in 2019, she joined the family business full-time as co-owner and manager with her father.
In the past year, Brandi Shelley has worked tirelessly to innovate and improve Shelley Farms’ operations, recently traveling to Canada to learn about off-bottom cultivation there. After seeing and tasting the results of depuration tanks used in Canadian oyster cultivation, Shelley Farms acquired a wet storage machine, the first of its kind in Louisiana.
Freshwater intrusion has become a constant problem for oysters harvested in local waters, diminishing the saltiness required for a good-tasting oyster. Two or three days in wet storage dramatically increases an oyster’s salty flavor, guaranteeing salty oysters 365 days a year.
The Shelleys aren’t the only ones in Louisiana looking at oyster farming a little differently. The decline of Louisiana’s wild oyster fishery has also been a major focus of Louisiana State University’s Sea Grant program. Committed to developing aquaculture in briny estuaries where oysters were previously plentiful, LSU built a $3 million oyster hatchery capable of producing 1 billion oyster larvae annually on Grand Isle in 2015 with funds from BP following the Deepwater Horizon disaster. An aquaculture park was also created in adjacent waters for the cultivation of off-bottom oysters.
In 2019, Brandi Shelley was tapped to become head of the aquaculture subcommittee of Louisiana’s Wildlife and Fisheries Oyster Task Force. At the time, she said she was reluctant to step up, but her father said, “You must do this! You’re a woman and a leader in this industry!”
High praise indeed from a dad who originaly thought the oyster business was “no place for a girl.”
Did you know oyster farms purchase oysters as tiny seeds?
In fact, 250,000 baby oysters together only weigh half a pound, but in 12 to 18 months, the resulting harvest will cover an acre and collectively weigh in at 25,000 pounds.
Catch Poppy Tooker on her radio show, “Louisiana Eats!” Saturdays at 3 p.m. and Mondays at 8 p.m. on WWNO 89.9 FM.