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Gaining Perspective to Breed a Better Oyster

Oysters on the half-shell. @Janet Krenn/VASG

Oyster Aquaculture: Virginia Sea Grant-funded research team gathers feedback from The Ebbit Grill General Manager Christian Guidi about what his restaurant looks for when buying oysters. ©Janet Krenn/VASG

Virginia Sea Grant-funded research team gathers feedback from The Ebbitt Grill General Manager  about what his restaurant looks for when buying oysters. (left-right Anu Frank Lawale, Peter Kube, Dan Kauffman) ©Janet Krenn/VASG

By Janet Krenn

Three oyster researchers took a road trip into the minds of seafood buyers, visiting high-end restaurants to find out what makes a half-shell oyster worth purchasing. The Virginia Sea Grant-funded research team wants to breed a better, more profitable oyster for Virginia’s oyster aquaculture industry. So far, they have concentrated on talking to growers to learn about traits they think would help them sell more oysters and improve their bottom line.

But, as Dan Kauffman points out, “People’s needs shapes their perceptions of what’s important. Growers and buyers have different experiences with oysters, so they have different perceptions of what traits are important.”

Kauffman is a Seafood Marketing Specialist at Virginia Tech and a Virginia Sea Grant Extension Partner who works with seafood growers to find ways to open and expand markets for their products. It is at his urging, and using his professional connections with seafood buyers, that the research team embarked on this trip to gain a little more perspective.

While Kauffman is thinking about the needs of seafood buyers, Anu Frank-Lawale is thinking about the needs of oyster producers.

Frank-Lawale is aquaculture geneticist at VIMS Aquaculture Breeding and Technology Center (ABC), and he’s in a unique position to improve oysters for Virginia’s growers. ABC provides oysters that become the parents of the baby oysters grown in Virginia’s hatcheries. Currently more than 90% of oysters planted by Virginia’s growers come from a parent that originated at ABC. By breeding beneficial traits into the parent oysters, the researchers plan to pass on those traits to the hatchery-grown offspring.

From a genetic perspective, the plan can only work if those traits are heritable, says Peter Kube, the third passenger on today’s road trip. An oyster geneticist from Australia with experience in using selective breeding to improve economic outcomes, Kube will calculate the value of each trait and determine how likely it is that parents can pass that trait on to their offspring. Then the team will work together to come up with a breeding strategy that will produce offspring with the most valuable combination of traits.

It’s in that prioritization step that the buyers’ insights will come in handy. For example, said Kube, “We went up there with some expectations that buyers would have opinions about what an oyster should look like—this whole ‘eat with your eyes’ thing.” While buyers said shape and appearance was important up to a point, the conversations suggested that breeding to get a more uniform shape wouldn’t impress the buyer as much as the researchers had expected. “What we heard was flavor, flavor, flavor.”

Although the team probably cannot breed flavor into oysters—the largest factor in oysters’ flavor comes from the water they grow in—the buyers’ comments will help refine how the researchers prioritize the traits they select for in the breeding process.

“Dan said it was important to get the buyer’s perspective, and he was spot on,” said Frank-Lawale.