Jules Melancon, oyster farmer who tried something new, dies at 65

Jules Melancon, oyster farmer who tried something new, dies at 65

Jules Melancon, a third-generation Louisiana oysterman who didn’t give up after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill devastated the Gulf Coast but found an innovative, sustainable and much tastier way to bring his salty delights to New Orleans restaurants, has died in August. 31 at his home in Cutoff, La. He was 65.

His father, Loyman Melancon, said the cause was metastatic cancer.

Mr. Melancon spent most of his life growing oysters the old-fashioned way, working a backhoe across the bottom of the shallow brackish waters of the lower Mississippi Delta. He captained his own 65-foot steel-bottomed boat, My Melanie, named after his wife, and returned each evening under the weight of the day’s catch.

It was backbreaking work. In his heyday, bear bear Mr. Melancon hauled two 120-pound bags of oysters onto a truck. But it was also lucrative: He sold 400 of these bags in a day for up to $15 per bag to canneries and wholesalers who shipped around the world.

The good days didn’t last. In the late 1990s, rising sea levels, pollution and erosion led to a decline in the oyster population and left the fragile region vulnerable to storm damage.

“We sensed before Katrina that oysters were on the decline,” Mr. Melancon told The Morning News, an online magazine, in 2015. “And then after Katrina, the oysters sort of disappeared by about two-thirds of them, and then in 2008 the oysters started growing a lot again, and then the BP disaster happened.”

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 flooded the Louisiana coast with millions of gallons of crude oil.

Still young enough to find a new job on land, Mr. Melancon was on the verge of quitting when a friend, Jim Gossen, who owned one of the largest seafood wholesalers on the Gulf Coast, told him about a new way of farming oysters , which was just tested by researchers at Auburn University near Mobile, Alabama.

Instead of dredging, farmers grew oysters, i.e. immature oysters, from pinhead-sized seeds in barrels on land. When the oysters reached the size of a quarter, they were moved to chicken wire cages suspended in shallow water.

It can take five years for wild oysters to reach full size; With this new approach, which exposed them to a rich flow of nutrients, it took them less than 10 months. And they were perfect: big and meaty, with photogenic shells that looked perfect on a raw bar.

“There is a higher level of care and nurturing,” William Walton, who led the Auburn program and now works at the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences, said in a telephone interview. “It’s more like a microbrewery.”

In 2014, Mr. Melancon received Louisiana’s first license to grow alternative oysters. Soon he was transporting the oysters directly to famous New Orleans restaurants like Brennan’s and Pêche.

They were a hit. In her book “Consider the Oyster” (1941), food writer MFK Fisher wrote, “American oysters are as different as Americans.” But that wasn’t really the case in the Gulf: While oyster fans were reminded of hyperlocal East Coast varieties like damariscottas and As we are used to Wellfleet oysters, Gulf oysters had no such provenance and were sold under the generic name “Gulf Coast oysters” in soups, stir-fries and cans.

Mr. Melancon changed all that. Suddenly he was offering names like Beauregard Islands, Champagnes and Queen Besses, which came from different corners of his watery growing regions, each with their own nuanced flavors.

“Jules was a pioneer,” said New Orleans restaurateur Dickie Brennan.

Mr. Melancon was doing well financially, but only relatively. Despite the growing fame of his oysters – he delivered them to restaurants as far away as Seattle – he sometimes barely made ends meet and made only a fraction of what he had made in the past. Hurricane Ida in 2021 set him back, as did a serious back injury he sustained while trying to repair his storm-damaged roof.

But by taking a chance on a new twist on a centuries-old practice, Mr. Melancon showed his fellow oyster farmers that there could still be a future for their vanishing way of life. Today, there are dozens of similar efforts across the coast, Dr. Walton.

“If you meet someone who’s trying to be the best at what they do, I don’t care if they’re a ditch digger,” Mr. Gossen said by phone. “They have a certain aura about wanting to be the best.”

Jules Chris Melancon was born March 22, 1958 in Cutoff, a bayou community about 25 miles south of New Orleans. He grew up bilingual, speaking Cajun French at home, as part of a vibrant, close-knit community that would quickly disappear over the course of his life.

In addition to his father, he is survived by his mother Mamie Lee (Aeymard), a housewife; his wife, Melanie (St. Pierre) Melancon; and his sisters Patti Barrios, Wendy Dodge, Tina O’Neal and Suzette Esbonge.

Mr. Melancon attended Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana, and then transferred to Delgado Community College in New Orleans, but left before graduating.

While studying, he worked part-time on his father’s oyster boat, but later decided to try something different. He worked on a Shell drilling rig in 1980, just as the domestic oil boom was beginning. He stood up quickly; By the time he was 25, he was managing several oil rigs. But lax safety standards and constant contact with toxic chemicals drove him back to the oyster boat.

In 1983 he worked for a time with his father and uncles; When they retired, he took over the business.

The best thing about oystering, he said in a 2015 oral history interview for Baylor University, is “the freedom to be.” “When I go out to farm,” he said, “when I get up, that used to be peace and quiet for me. In the morning to see the sunrise – and I would be out early growing my oysters.”

But then everything changed.

“Everything is more polluted now,” he said. “And the country won’t be the same and it won’t get any better.”

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