To feed a hungry world, it’s no longer enough to catch wild seafood. Many fisheries are in decline because of overfishing, environmental stresses or both, and human demand for protein has never been greater. That means aquaculture has to be a growing part of the world’s food supply. Here in North Carolina, it’s also an essential component in growing the economies of our coastal communities.
A case in point is the state’s oyster fishery, which once supplied much of the East Coast, but now can’t even meet demand from within North Carolina. Our state is working hard to emulate our neighbors to the north, who through state-sponsored shellfish research hatcheries have bred a better oyster, able to thrive in Chesapeake Bay and other Virginia waters.
In 2011, North Carolina began supporting a hatchery, right here on the CREST Research Park in Wilmington. UNC Wilmington faculty researchers and student workers are using selective breeding techniques, supplemented by some high-tech genetic research, to develop new strains of oysters to suit our state’s waters. The hatchery is also working with scallops, which are more challenging to grow but more lucrative to sell, as well as sunray Venus clams. But oysters are its primary product.
A recent comparison of oyster cultivation in North Carolina and Virginia, conducted by the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center, showed that in 2005, the two states were roughly even, each producing roughly a quarter-million dollars’ worth of farmed oysters. But while Virginia’s production exploded, reaching almost $10 million in just seven years, our state’s aquaculture operations barely doubled their output.
The report urged strong support for the shellfish industry’s basic needs, saying: “Improvements in oyster genetics and hatchery development will be required in order to significantly advance the sector.” That is precisely what we are working on in our hatchery.
Ami Wilbur, Ph.D., an associate professor of marine biology who directs the hatchery, said its mission is “to find out what grows best in our waters and let that become the parents of the next generation.” In large tanks and now some innovative smaller incubators, she and her staff are using time-honored selective breeding techniques. Crossing one strain of oyster with another, selecting those that grow best in North Carolina’s warmer, saltier waters, and then re-crossing those strains, she explained, “Every generation we should see an improvement in the lines, and we can spin that off to the industry.”
While mature oysters are immobile, staying on wild reefs or in aquaculture cages or bags, oyster larvae are free-swimming. Most of the “seed” or “spat” from our hatchery are grown out in our own research areas, but some surplus seed is made available to commercial shellfish farmers.
For now, that’s a fairly small output. We’re still well behind Virginia, which started its program in the 1990s and now supports a number of commercial oyster hatcheries. That’s one of our program’s goals. “By supporting the industry any way we can, we’ll grow the industry to the point it can support commercial hatcheries,” Wilbur said.
Virginia’s experience provides a model for how that can happen here. The industry in Virginia not only benefited from the development of selected lines at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) but also the training of students who entered the industry after graduating. Some of the commercial oyster hatcheries in that state are run by VIMS graduates, Wilbur said. Those graduates went into shellfish farming themselves. As their oyster farming operations grew, they needed seed and started to produce their own. Then, in turn, they were able to produce enough seed to sell to others.
A commercial hatchery doesn’t have to be as high-tech as ours. “It could be a lot simpler and a lot less sophisticated than what we have here,” Wilbur noted. She knows of one small-scale operation in North Carolina, “One guy, basically in his back yard,” she said, “who does a great job.” Just not big enough yet to help the state’s oyster fishery grow as fast as it needs to.
Right now, the surplus output from our hatchery allows us to sell oyster seed to shellfish farmers “in the tens and twenties of thousands,” Wilbur said, “but they’d like millions.”
Of course, our purpose is research and development, not mass production. One important aspect of our work is to learn more about the genome of oysters. We are examining how our work, based on traditional selective-breeding methods, is affecting the gene pool. Researchers are looking for “markers” on oyster DNA that translate into superior performance by the growing animal. Ultimately, we hope these methods will let us pre-screen the broodstock so we’ll know for sure that a particular parent oyster has inherited the most desirable genes.
At the same time, we have to be careful to maintain enough genetic diversity in our stock. “It’s a careful dance hatcheries have to do,” Wilbur said, “to be sure our broodstock oysters aren’t all brothers and sisters,” which generally results in poorly performing offspring .
As it is, our North Carolina-specific breeds have proven their value. A recent study funded by Sea Grant looked at oyster performance at five aquaculture operations, and in four of them our North Carolina oysters performed as well and sometimes better than some of Virginia’s selected varieties.
Eventually, this work can help not just productivity, but marketability, by enhancing the known qualities of some of the state’s best-known and most flavorful oyster varieties.
It’s worth mentioning, by the way, that shellfish aquaculture has an important advantage over open-water fin-fish farming. In some parts of the world, fish farming has degraded coastal marine environments because of the large volumes of feed needed, whether based on grain or on wild-caught prey fish. Shellfish, by contrast, are filter feeders. Oyster, clam and scallop farms leave their surrounding waters cleaner, with each animal removing microorganisms from as much as 50 gallons of water a day. So enhancing the economic prospects of shellfish aquaculture operators is also a win-win for the coastal environment.
UNCW CREST Research Park is a front-runner in marine biotech research and development. Researchers are exploring the potential of natural products derived from the sea to treat or cure human diseases and meet other important needs.
Discover why rising biotechnology and life sciences groups from all over the country are moving to UNCW CREST Research Park. UNCW CREST Research Park offers top-notch commercial laboratories available for lease at affordable rates, flexible terms, and innovative product development opportunities that are unmatched by any other park. Connect with CREST at [email protected] today.
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