Selecting a Better Oyster (Part 1): Sea Grant Research Supports Industry Growth

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Selecting a Better Oyster (Part 1): Sea Grant Research Supports Industry Growth

VASG-funded researchers want to improve the bottom line for Virginia’s oyster growers by selectively breeding oysters with more profitable traits.

Oyster Aquaculture: Doug McMinn (left) discusses his handling and processing of oysters at his company, Chesapeake Bay Oyster Company, with Virginia Sea Grant-funded researchers Peter Kube and Anu Frank Lawale (left-right). ©Janet Krenn/VASG

Owner Doug McMinn (left) discusses how Chesapeake Bay Oyster Company grows oysters with VASG-funded researchers Peter Kube and Anu Frank Lawale (left-right). ©Janet Krenn/VASG

By Janet Krenn

Part 1 in a 3-part series: Selecting a Better Oyster.

On a bright spring day, Doug McMinn leads two researchers on a tour of his Chesapeake Bay Oyster Company facility. McMinn may be an oyster grower, but the majority of the tour, where he describes the process he goes through to get a high-value product, takes place on land. He has equipment for tumbling, sizing, and resorting oysters. Everything is in a wooded area, without a waterfront view.

All of this equipment is necessary for producing marketable oysters, he explains. Tumbling makes little breaks in the oyster shell, and encourages the animal to repair the shell and grow into that characteristic oyster shape. The sizing and sorting processes ensure that bags and cages don’t get over-crowded and oysters don’t compete with each other for food.

Oyster Aquaculture: Chesapeake Bay Oyster Company employee pulls up an oyster cage. ©Janet Krenn/VASG

Chesapeake Bay Oyster Company employee pulls up an oyster cage. ©Janet Krenn/VASG

As McMinn describes his process, one thing becomes clear: The more he brings his oysters onshore, the more gas and manual labor required, the more expensive they are to grow, the narrower the profit margin.

With funding from Virginia Sea Grant, researcher Anu Frank-Lawale wants to improve the bottom line for Virginia’s oyster growers by breeding a better oyster.

Frank-Lawale is an aquaculture geneticist at Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) Aquaculture Genetics and Breeding Technology Center (ABC). ABC has been key to helping establish oyster aquaculture in Virginia by breeding disease-resistant, fast-growing oysters.

As recently as 2005, there wasn’t much of an industry to speak of. Today more than 20 million aquacultured oysters make it to market annually. The oyster aquaculture industry is growing by 34% a year and has a $14.3 million annual economic impact to the state.

With more growers planting more oysters, now is the time, says Frank-Lawale, to take the industry to the next level.

“With every industry, you start out small, and then you get more complex,” he says. “So the question for oyster aquaculture in Virginia is, what do you do now?” For Frank-Lawale and ABC, the next step is breeding oysters with valuable traits that allow growers to earn more from their crop.

This is the next step in supporting Virginia’s growing oyster aquaculture industry. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be looking closer ABC’s Sea Grant-funded projects to breed a better, more profitable oyster, continuing a relationship that started back in 1979, when ABC Director Stan Allen first started his oyster research.

A Timeline of ABC, Sea Grant, and Oyster Culture in Virginia

  • 1979 – Using a chemical method, future ABC-founder Stan Allen creates his first triploid oyster using the Eastern Oyster (work supported by Maine Sea Grant)
  • 1986 – Allen applies his chemical method to the Pacific Oyster and jump-starts oyster aquaculture in Washington state (work supported by Washington Sea Grant)
  • 1989 – Allen begins first inter-regional program (NJ, DE, MD, VA) for selective breeding for disease resistance in Eastern oyster (CROSBreed) (work supported by National Sea Grant)
  • 1991 – Allen develops his first tetraploid oyster using Pacific oysters (work supported by New Jersey Sea Grant)
  • 1997 – Allen moves to Virginia to apply genetics and breeding to oyster recovery
  • 2003-2005 – Allen provides triploid Suminoe and Eastern oysters for large-scale commercial study, first introduction of Eastern Oysters, a native oyster, to growers. (work supported by Virginia Sea Grant)
  • 2009 – Army Corps of Engineers, citing human and ecosystem health, announces a decision to stop testing Chinese Oyster for aquaculture in Chesapeake Bay
  • 2009 – Oyster aquaculture of native triploids increased ten-fold from 2005 to 2009, owing to equipment investments made by growers for the study and their exposure to native oysters during large-scale studies
  • 2011 – Allen and ABC take the next step: Preparing to breed oysters with beneficial traits beyond simply disease resistance (work supported by Virginia Sea Grant)
  • 2012 – 90% of oysters planted in Virginia are triploids, supporting an industry with a $14.3 million economic impact for the state.

This is Part 1 in the series: Selecting a Better Oyster about how Virginia Sea Grant-funded research will get more profitable oysters in the hands of growers.