In the wake of hurricanes and the BP oil spill, he revolutionized his industry by turning from wild catches to cage farming his precious bivalves.
Jules Melancon, a third-generation Louisiana oysterman who, rather than giving up after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill ravaged the Gulf Coast, found an innovative, sustainable and much tastier way to bring his briny delicacies to New Orleans restaurants, died on Aug. 31 at his home in Cut Off, La. He was 65.
His father, Loyman Melancon, said the cause was metastatic cancer.
Mr. Melancon spent most of his life farming oysters the old-fashioned way, working a dredge across the bottom of the shallow, brackish waters of the lower Mississippi River Delta. He captained his own 65-foot steel-bottom boat, My Melanie, named for his wife and returned every evening sagging under the weight of the day’s catch.
It was backbreaking work. In his prime, the ursine Mr. Melancon would lug two 120-pound sacks of oysters onto a truck. But it was lucrative, too: He’d sell 400 of those bags in a day, at up to $15 a bag, to canneries and wholesalers that shipped worldwide.
The good days didn’t last. By the end of the 1990s, rising sea levels, pollution and erosion were driving down the oyster population and making the fragile region vulnerable to storm damage.
“We started feeling it before Katrina, that the oysters were on the downhill,” Mr. Melancon told The Morning News, an online magazine, in 2015. “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.”
That oil spill, from the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, coated the Louisiana coast in millions of gallons of crude.
Still young enough to find a new job on land, Mr. Melancon was on the brink of quitting when a friend, Jim Gossen, who owned one of the Gulf Coast’s biggest seafood wholesalers, told him about a new type of oyster farming being tested by Auburn University researchers near Mobile, Ala.
Instead of dredging, farmers grew spats, or immature oysters, from pinhead-size seeds in drums on land. When the oysters were the size of a quarter, they went into chicken-wire cages suspended in shallow water.
Wild oysters might take five years to reach full size; with this new approach, exposing them to a rich flow of nutrients, they needed less than 10 months. And they were perfect: big and meaty, with photogenic shells that looked perfect on a raw bar.
“There’s a greater level of care and tending,” William Walton, who ran the Auburn program and is now at the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences, said in a phone interview. “It’s more equivalent to a microbrew.”
In 2014, Mr. Melancon received Louisiana’s first alternative oyster culture license. Soon he was trucking the oysters directly to famed New Orleans restaurants like Brennan’s and Pêche.
They were a hit. In her book “Consider the Oyster” (1941), the food writer M.F.K. Fisher wrote that “American oysters differ as much as American people.” But that wasn’t really the case on the gulf: While oyster fans are used to hyperlocal varieties from the East Coast like Damariscottas and Wellfleets, those from the gulf had no such provenance, going by the generic name of Gulf Coast oysters and bound for soups, frying pans and cans.
Mr. Melancon changed all that. Suddenly he was offering names like Beauregard Islands, Champagnes and Queen Besses, pulled from different corners of his watery farming grounds, each with its own nuanced flavors.
“Jules was a pioneer,” the New Orleans restaurateur Dickie Brennan said.
Mr. Melancon did well financially, but only relatively. Despite the growing renown of his oysters — he shipped to restaurants as far away as Seattle — he was sometimes just scraping by, making 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 fix his storm-damaged roof.
Still, by taking a risk 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 said.
“When you meet somebody that tries to be the best at what they do, I don’t care if he’s a ditch digger,” Mr. Gossen said by phone. “There’s a certain aura about them when they want to be the best.”
Jules Chris Melancon was born on March 22, 1958, in Cut Off, a bayou community about 25 miles south of New Orleans. He grew up bilingual, speaking Cajun French at home, as part of a vibrant, tight-knit community that would rapidly fade over his lifetime.
Along with his father, he is survived by his mother, Mamie Lee (Aeymard), a homemaker; 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, La., and then transferred to Delgado Community College in New Orleans, but left before graduating.
While attending college he worked on his father’s oyster boat on the side, but he later decided to try something else. He went to work on a Shell oil rig in 1980, just as the domestic oil boom was beginning. He rose quickly; by 25 he was managing multiple rigs. But lax safety standards and constant exposure to toxic chemicals drove him back to the oyster boat.
In 1983 he worked with his father and uncles for a spell; when they retired, he took over the business.
The best part about oystering, he said in a 2015 oral history interview for Baylor University, was “about being free.” “When I go farming,” he said, “when I get up, to me, it used to be for the peace and tranquillity. In the morning, to see that sun rise — and I’d be out there early, farming my oysters.”
But then all that changed.
“Now everything is more polluted,” he said. “And the land’s not going to be the same, and it’s not going to get better.”