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Supan Announces Retirement

Research professor, oyster specialist and Louisiana Sea Grant (LSG) Oyster Research Lab director John Supan retired Dec. 31, 2017, after more than three decades with LSU.

Supan first began work with LSG in 1984 as an area fisheries agent for Sea Grant and the LSU AgCenter, serving St. Tammany, Orleans and Tangipahoa parishes. During the following six years, he developed a strong commercial fisheries program working with local inshore shrimpers, while specializing in soft shell crab production during the National Sea Grant Program’s impetus of applying recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) technology to that industry. In 1985, he became executive secretary-treasurer of the Louisiana Oyster Dealers & Growers Association, the state’s oldest seafood trade association, a position he still holds.

Photo: John SupanDuring 1990, Supan changed career focus and became a Sea Grant research associate to begin working on his doctorate, while on loan to the first commercial oyster hatchery in the Gulf region, Gulf Shellfish Farms of Louisiana. There, he began a 28-year part-time residency on Grand Isle, while managing the oyster hatchery and training oystermen to utilize oyster larvae for remote setting techniques to produce their own seed oysters in order to become less dependent on the public oyster grounds, where production had dwindled due to drought conditions and saltwater intrusion from 1985 to 1991. Once wild seed production rebounded, the commercial venture folded and LSG acquired the facility. The repurposed Gulf Shellfish Farms became the Sea Grant Oyster Hatchery with Supan at the helm by 1993.

Supan credits the late Ron Becker, former Louisiana Sea Grant associate director, with teaching him the necessary skills to write competitive funding proposals and for sharing in his vision of establishing a strong hatchery-based oyster research and extension program at LSU. As a result, Supan secured more than $7 million for collaborative research supported by private, state and federal funding during his tenure at LSU, including initiating and administering the National Sea Grant Office’s Gulf Oyster Industry Program from 1998-2002, a regional research initiative addressing the oyster industry’s needs.

During 1998, Supan joined LSU Boyd professor Harry Roberts’ team in ground-truthing the new use of side-scan sonar on Louisiana’s oyster leases as a means to quantify cultivated lease acreage for relocation due to freshening effects of the Davis Pond and Caenarvon Mississippi River Diversion structures, while teaching Department of Natural Resources’ licensed land appraisers how to valuate private oyster leases. As a result, many private consulting firms now use sonar to evaluate shallow inshore water bottoms.  Supan said “it was a nice change from working the hatchery and being on Grand Isle 24/7.”

During his tenure as director of the hatchery, Supan’s research focused primarily on developing triploid oysters. Triploid oysters — named such because they have three sets of chromosomes rather than two typically found in wild oysters – have higher summertime meat yields. They are also sexually sterile, which means they don’t expend energy during the summer months by spawning. The result is an oyster that grows faster and remains fatter throughout the summer months when wild oysters are typically thin and watery.

“It’s been a long career helping all of this happen,” Supan said. “My long-term goal for the (oyster) program was always commercialization, and now we have commercial triploid farms all across the Gulf.”

Supan explained that his work was largely collaborative and stretched across state lines and institutions. He credits a 23-year alliance with professor Stan Allen, currently of Virginia Institute of Marine Science, with the production of the first tetraploid oyster broodstock – having four sets of chromosomes – for the Gulf region in 1998, which drives triploid production across the Gulf today.

The patented process by which tetraploid oysters are used to produce triploids is licensed by 4Cs Breeding Technologies Inc. for Rutgers University, and 4Cs currently issues licenses to hatcheries wishing to employ the process themselves. “We are one of the few laboratories in the world to do what we do — tetraploid shellfish development for triploid production by commercial operators — and Louisiana Sea Grant is a Gulf associate of 4Cs,” he said.

Beginning in 2003, Supan began proposing the concept of sustainable coastal community development via inshore marine enterprise zones, or aquaculture parks, applying industrial park zoning concepts to Louisiana’s coastal waters. He assisted the passage of state legislation in 2012 and 2017 creating policies for the use of the water column and surface over existing oyster leases and unique marine spatial planning of oyster farming zones in our coastal waters for off-bottom culture, thereby making Louisiana the only state in the U.S. with such dual progressive programming. This eventually led to the establishment of the Grand Isle Oyster Farming Zone administered by the Grand Isle Port Commission, a pre-permitted, delineated area of coastal water for off-bottom cage culture for triploid oyster production, also serving as a demonstration of unique, progressive, coastal planning for consideration by other coastal parishes and private land owners.

In 2015, Supan transitioned the Sea Grant Oyster Hatchery into the Sea Grant Oyster Research Laboratory located within the Michael C. Voisin Oyster Hatchery on Grand Isle, which was built with National Resource Damage Assessment funding resulting from the BP oil spill and currently owned and operated by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. The hatchery, designed by Supan, is the first in the world to incorporate both RAS technology and LED algal lighting to produce oysters.

Supan plans to continue his work with oysters, as he is co-owner of Navy Cove Oyster Co. LLC in Alabama, an industry cooperator where collaborative research occurs with Auburn University and LSU, and has a number of ongoing projects in continuing to develop and enhance triploid production. For instance, the triploids, produced by the current tetraploid broodstock line, are sometimes seeing 15 to 40 percent mortality during the summer, which is believed to be caused by heat stress during spring and/or early summer freshets.

“My doctoral student, Brian Callam, and I have been working on a new line of tetraploids that will be an alternative to the current line being utilized in the region. We hope to see them produce better triploids for the Gulf,” he said. By changing the male component of the tetraploid/diploid cross to have a more “southern” genetic background, Supan explained, the resulting triploids may better withstand summertime conditions.

“I don’t know that I could’ve possibly had a better career than I’ve had at Louisiana Sea Grant,” he said. “And I won’t be leaving the oyster world at all, I just won’t be in Grand Isle as much.”

Despite humble beginnings working under an old boat shed for 18 years, saving his program from 16 named tropical storms, two catastrophic (Andrew and Katrina), and a historic oil spill, he said “I am equally proud of the hundreds of individuals I have trained in both hatchery operations, site and gear selection and farm management. The general field of coastal aquaculture, and in particular oyster farming, will continue to see aggressive support by state, regional and federal sources to help coastal residents transition their livelihoods to our ever-changing coast.”