Sustainable Oyster Fisherman Maurer The Pearl Of The Industry
At the 7th annual New Orleans Oyster Festival that takes place this weekend at Woldenberg Riverfront Park along the Mississippi River, organizers will celebrate the benefits of the Louisiana Gulf Oyster, honor the restaurateurs and oyster farmers who have solidified the French Quarter’s position as the “Oyster Capital of America” and help raise funds for coastal restoration.
It’s a platform Scott Maurer is also fishing from.
As the owner, manager and chief oyster officer of The Louisiana Oyster Co., Maurer is rocking the boat by integrating off-bottom sustainable technology with his oyster harvesting methods.
Instead of dredging the water’s muddy bottom to bring up bivalves that take 3 years to mature, Maurer sets up cages in 2 feet of water out of Grand Isle, LA, and grows market ready 3.5-inch oysters perfected in only 8 months. He knows how quickly and consistently his product will grow, and knows how much he can bring to market on a monthly basis.
“I grow specialty, boutique oysters for the half shell market,” he said. “I’m not competing with the big shucking or commodity oyster companies. We’re like the micro-breweries of the beer industry. There’s an oyster Renaissance going on.”
According to the Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board 70% of the oysters caught in the U.S. are from the Gulf Coast, which account for almost 4,000 jobs and an economic impact of $317 million annually within the $2.4 billion dollar a year Louisiana seafood industry.
“Farming oysters in 2 feet of water takes advantage of the best nutrients in the water column,” Maurer said. “At that level you find the highest concentration of phytoplankton, and the oysters feed on a better diet. They don’t have to filter through silt and mud on the floor bottom. It’s not meant to be a replacement, but an alternative to traditional oyster fishing methods. But this way, you get better quality meat in a shorter amount of time.”
“Scott is offering something different,” Jason Pippenger, owner of Geaux Seafood a Louisiana based seafood logistics company that connects commercial fisherman with local restaurants, said. “Traditional bottom oysters continue to be a staple in New Orleans cuisine. Now, restaurants and distributers have a multiple option with Scott’s oysters. They’re a premium product with a different flavor profile.”
Last month, Pippenger travelled with client Maurer to the Billion Oyster Party in Brooklyn, NY, to debut The Louisiana Oyster Co.’s first harvest.
Maurer said the reaction was overwhelmingly positive as he shucked 800 oysters for the mouth-watering mollusk loving crowd. Maurer was one of 40 oyster farmers from around the country to showcase his bed of delicacies and the only oyster fisherman invited to represent the Gulf Coast.
“The texture is creamy,” Pippenger said about Maurer’s oysters. “Upfront you notice a perfect brine with nodes of butter and sweetness on the back end. They’re clean and grime free because they aren’t grown in the mud. And they don't get milky or thin during the summer months, so you have a great product all year around.”
“People eat oysters like they drink fine wine because different areas yield oysters with different flavors, “Maurer said. “So far, there are no branded oysters in the Gulf, but we want to create a house of brands. We can control salinity levels to create distinct flavors that each oyster takes on depending on where it’s grown, and we can also control their size.”
Maurer is from Cleveland, OH, but came to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to help with relief work. He said he envisioned a life working on the water and travelled to Houma, LA, where he met Morris Scott, a revered and weathered oyster fisherman who helped teach Maurer the ropes. Along with the benefit of decades of research by Dr. John Supan and the LSU AgCenter, Maurer is using oyster larvae from LSU’s hatchery and growing oysters in his nurseries by pumping natural ocean waters through a series of pipes, barrels and mesh filters using multiple systems including The Barrel Upweller, the Downweller and the Floating Upweller (FLUPSY). “We employ a variety of systems to maximize efficiency and improve redundancy, working hand in hand with LSU and other regulatory agencies to ensure the highest quality and safety of our products,” Maurer said.
“There are no downside to oysters,” he said. “They provide beneficial environmental needs. The type of off-bottom sustainable oyster farming I do takes the pressure off natural oysters in the wild so they can continue to provide the benefits that protect our coastlines. They can stay in their natural habitat to create coral reefs in tidal zones. It’s within those 3-D structures that the food chain begins.”
Maurer said when oysters reproduce they create shelves along the coastline that help stabilize it, solidify the water’s bottom and provide a natural living coastline instead of one bolstered by man-made and man-placed concrete blocks. He said oysters filter nitrogen out of the water, and they use the carbon that sinks to the ocean floor to make their calcium carbonate shells helping to remove carbon emissions.
Because Maurer’s caged oysters feed on a higher concentration of suspended phytoplankton in 2 feet of water than what’s found on the sea floor, his oysters growth rate is accelerated three fold.
“The oysters are happier in this environment,” he said. “The baskets they’re grown in protect them from natural predators, drum and snails. We are able to produce market size oysters faster because they are growing meat and not shell – they don’t have to protect themselves and create a better defense.”
He said the floating cages also provide an extra benefit to the shoreline because they lessen wave activity, which can help preserve the coast.
While Maurer may not be having trouble growing his oysters, he’s admittedly having trouble growing his business because of the ongoing moratorium on new oyster leases.
His nursery is located in Cocodrie, LA, where he fishes approximately 1,000 acres of traditional on-bottom oysters, but he’s currently developing 4 acres in Grand Isle to grow oysters in his off-bottom alternative oyster culture.
“If I can’t get more acreage approved, I can’t grow,” he said.
Byron Encalade, president of the Louisiana Oystermen Association, spent some of this week in Baton Rouge lobbying for Bill #902 and Bill #1130, currently in the LA House of Representatives, to lift the moratorium on new oyster leases and to allow for dual leasing of water bottoms for oyster cultivation and harvest.
“It’s a great thing what the Louisiana Oyster, Co. is doing, but it’s all about location, location, location,” Encalade said. “Those methods will never replace the historical way of harvesting oysters. It never will. You can never produce enough. And you can’t put those cages anywhere you want. Every user group has rights too. My rights stop where the next guy’s starts. You have to duel with the oil and gas industry, crabbers, shrimpers. But it’s one of these entities we have to look at. You have to look at everything if you’re going to survive and maintain growing oysters in the Gulf Coast area.”
Encalade said the new sustainable methods for growing and harvesting oysters will probably only account for 10% of the yield in the future, because of the logistics. He said you need to find just the right area with the just the right salinity of water, manage the cages, and deal with the costs of the boats and labor. While he applauds taking advantage of new technology, he said off-bottom fishing comes at a cost.
“Prices for oysters now are high, so it’s a method that’s foreseeable now, but when the prices go down, it will be too costly,” he said.
Maurer said the average Gulf oysters is selling for between $.40-$.50 cents a piece at the dock right now, and they are sold retail for between $12-$18 for a dozen.
His oysters, which he said are superior because of the consistency of their size, meat and flavor, sell for between $.65-$.85 cents at the dock and retail at up to $3 a piece at restaurants.
“You can buy a boat for $30,000 and dredge a 1,000 acres,” he said. “But it costs me $30,000 to develop 1 acre off-bottom. I expect to recoup my start-up costs with the first harvest.”
Maurer said he’s open to field inquires from investors, as well as getting some help from law enforcement.
“Grand Isle was the home base for Jean Lafitte,” he said, “and there are still many pirates that roam these waters.”
Maurer said his young business has been a victim of a lot of theft so far, and he hasn’t felt too welcome among other oystermen in the region.
“I put a lot of work into planting these oysters,” he said. “I’m the only independent fisherman in the waters I farm in. The rest are big corporations with workers who have no skin in the game.”
On the flip side, Maurer said the reception from restaurateurs and culinarians have been outstanding.
One professional review guide and app called Oystour described Maurer’s off-bottom oysters as, “The heft of the shell is immediately evident, with its roundness a snug fit between the fingers. Inside is a gem of an oyster, the light, sweet aroma wafts over a sparkling liquor, reminiscent of a sunlit Gulf Coast morning on the water. The roly-poly meat floats happily inside the shell. The fist sip of liquor reveals a gentle balance of brine and sweetness, while the bite is big and full-bodied. Layers of sweet cream and vegetals capture the merrior of the Gulf perfectly. The savory flavor remains for a nice stay before gently fading with hints of simple syrup under the salts.”
Maurer said his oysters will remain new and unique because he uses different food implant flavors determined by the parts of waters he farms them in.
“More people are concerned about the environment, and they want to know where their food comes from,” he said. “Our oysters are hand-crafted. We touch them 25 or more times before they go to market. A lot of care goes into this, and it shows in the end product and our flavor profile.”
“There’s a lot of tradition down here,” he said, “but I don’t know why more people aren’t using these sustainable methods. When I did my research I found the ancient Romans grew oysters this way and the Chinese back in 800 AD grew farm raised oysters. The principles rest on ancient technology. If you don’t fish sustainably you’re working yourself out of a job.”
Maurer believes oysters are world builders and oyster reefs are cornerstones of life. More natural reefs means there will be more shrimp, crabs and fish, he said, and he fears natural oysters are being overfished.
“Hatchery techniques will be huge because due to environmental changes and disasters, we may not always be able to rely on the natural ecosystem,” he said. “It’s cheaper to pick them off the bottom, but we may not have that option in the future.”
Ralph Pausina, president of the Louisiana Oyster Dealers and Growers Association, said what Maurer is doing gives fishermen some control so they’re not so dependent on Mother Nature. He said because oysters grown from hatcheries are sterile and can’t reproduce, they “stay fat” all year long yielding a much better product.
“It’s a challenge finding decent oysters to sell,” he said. “This procedure, raising larvae from hatcheries, you have some control, but it costs a lot of money, and you have to make sure they all survive. There has always been an abundance of seed, but over the last 10 years the supply of natural supply seed has been diminishing more and more. This process, this off-bottom culture, will be pursued more out of a necessity.”
Pausina said the oyster game changed after Hurricane Katrina’s eye passed over 8,000 acres of public seed ground, and did “all kinds of damage.”
He said with subsequent hurricanes and the widespread use of chemicals used in area waters after the BP oil spill, oysters disappeared and didn’t come back. There’s also been an influx of meddling mussels, he said, that have taken over the sea bottoms and prevent oyster larvae from developing at the reefs.
“There are very few oysters available in public seed ground now,” he said. “In the future I believe the volume will be even less, and the supply inferior. Some growers will have to change what they’re doing. Those who don’t change may not get to produce oysters anymore.”
Maurer said he’s excited about helping other oyster fisherman grow his way, and helping them with sustainability studies. He encourages others with oyster leases to see if they can be utilized for off-bottom structures.
While you may not find a pearl in one of Maurer’s oysters, because he said meaty oysters don’t grow quality pearls, his first crop, due to debut in the Gulf this July, may just prove to be the “bijoux de la mer.”
“It will catch on,” Maurer said. “I’m not afraid to be the first. I believe in this 100%, and I’m all in. It’s going to work.”
The Louisiana Oyster Company
1750 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. STE 109-259
Houma, LA 70360