ORA Estuaries is Making Waves in Oyster Conservation

ORA Estuaries is Making Waves in Oyster Conservation

 
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The New Orleans company’s patented OysterBreak technology preserves coastlines while growing oyster beds.

Tyler Ortego has the mind of an engineer and the heart of a conservationist. Thanks to his New Orleans-based company ORA Estuaries, he’s able to indulge both of those passions.

His company’s flagship product, the OysterBreak, is a stackable concrete-and-oyster shell ring that is designed to help minimize erosion while serving as a breeding ground for oysters. The OysterBreak is a new, patented technology, and it just might be the wave of the future in shoreline conservation.

It’s hard to overstate oysters’ importance to the state’s economy, ecology and culture. Louisiana produces 55 percent of the total oysters harvested in the Gulf of Mexico, and a full one-third of the U.S. total. Their beds provide shelter and food for countless Gulf marine species. They support thousands of jobs related to the state’s commercial fishing industry, and feed millions of customers coming to Louisiana for a taste of our famous seafood. There are families in Louisiana who have been oystering for generations, and books and documentaries that testify to Louisiana’s connection to this humble mollusk. Put simply, oysters are part of Louisianians’ DNA.

They are also becoming big business. A wide-ranging 2014 New York Times article cited the growing popularity of oyster bars nationwide, with new restaurants popping up on both coasts and throughout the heartland. Bob Rheault, executive director of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association, cited a doubling of oyster production in just the past five years. The appearance of newer seafood-centric restaurants in Louisiana such as Sac-a-lait, Peche and Borgne, all of which serve a variety of raw oysters, is no coincidence. This delicacy on the half shell is enjoying its time in the national spotlight.

That’s the good news. The bad is that the coastal communities and estuaries that support (and are supported by) oystering worldwide are under threat from natural and man-made changes that have resulted in the loss of 85 percent of the world’s oyster beds.

Coastal erosion and storm surges particularly are affecting Louisiana’s coast, and the OysterBreak helps slow the effects of both. It’s a steel-reinforced cylinder made with concrete and an oyster substrate that attracts spat (literally, baby oysters). The OysterBreak’s texture allows the spat to bond and grow quickly, which means predators such as crabs have less chance of eating them. The OysterBreak’s hollow body also attracts fish that hide from predators, breed and set up homes inside the Lego-type structure. 

Then there’s the matter of scalability. These units can be stacked, added onto and customized to fit any environment. Once established, the oysters grow naturally to create a thick wall of shell that hardens and proliferates faster than the sea level can rise.

The idea came to Ortego more than a decade ago, when he was a student at Louisiana State University. “It was a challenge to a student group to come up with an engineered way of growing oysters,” he says. He got together with colleagues to develop what would eventually become the OysterBreak, and gradually became more serious about making it a viable business.

Ortego’s pitches turned into projects. In 2010, The Nature Conservancy contracted Wayfarer Environmental Technology (who builds the OysterBreak) to install units at Vermilion Bay. That initial contract led to two more expansions. During that time, the company received an order of 1,200 OysterBreaks from the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority and NOAA Fisheries, to be dropped in the waters off the coast of Cameron Parish. Today you’ll find them in the waters near St. Bernard, Plaquemines and St. Mary parishes as well.

In 2014, during New Orleans Entrepreneur Week, an annual event that brings new businesses and investors together, ORA Estuaries won the Water Challenge business pitch competition, whose $50,000 prize was just part of the validation Ortego’s received for his efforts.

Looking ahead, the engineer wants to scale up what ORA Estuaries is currently doing, finding bigger challenges and laying down more OysterBreaks. “It’s not just exciting as a business, but seeing our work positively and measurably impacting water quality and reducing tidal flooding in communities—that’s where we’re trying to go,” Ortego says.