By Kate Schimel
Karen Hudson’s walls are hung with pictures of clam harvests, pamphlets on oyster growing, and other mementos from a career in oyster aquaculture. “This is my dream job,” says Hudson, looking out at the York River from her desk on the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) campus. Hudson joined the Virginia Sea Grant Marine Extension Program (VASG) in February as the Commercial Shellfish Aquaculture Extension Specialist.
“I had wanted this position before they even had this position,” says Hudson, who will act as the bridge between aquaculture researchers and the commercial growers, harvesters, and hatcheries. She adds, “I am really interested in aquaculture and what the industry is doing.”
Hudson’s job is brand new for the VIMS and VASG program, the result of funding by an Aquaculture Extension and Technology Transfer grant, through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s National Marine Aquaculture Initiative. The initiative, which is coordinated by the NOAA Sea Grant and NOAA Aquaculture Programs, funds research that supports the domestic aquaculture industry.
The creation of Hudson’s position comes at a time when the aquaculture industry in Virginia is expanding. Virginia’s clam aquaculture is the largest in the country, and oyster aquaculture has expanded fivefold in as many years. Between 2009 and 2010, the number of oysters planted in the state nearly tripled. Taken together, aquaculture is “certainly an economic boost for Virginia,” Hudson says.
With this growth, having a shellfish aquaculture specialist on staff is very important, says Tom Murray, VASG Marine Extension Program Leader. Murray says, “There has been a growing demand for answers to issues within the shellfish culture industry and for someone to bridge the gap between applied research and industry. With rapid growth come unforeseen impediments to that growth.”
Although the shellfish aquaculture position is new, Hudson will not start from scratch. VASG and VIMS staff have been working closely with the shellfish community for a long time, organizing the biennial Virginia Aquaculture Conference, maintaining regular communications with industry members, and providing economic analysis of shellfish aquaculture in Virginia through annual studies.
“Aquaculture has been a cornerstone of VASG since our inception,” says Troy Hartley, VASG Director. “I could not be more thrilled to have Karen join us, bringing her outstanding strengths and experiences to support a socially, economically, and ecologically sustainable business sector. Through Karen’s work, we’ll contribute to creating aquaculture jobs in Virginia.”
Hudson comes from a research background. After getting her bachelor’s degree, and a stint as a science instructor on Virginia’s Eastern Shore she made the move to Cambridge, MA. While she was looking for a lab job, Hudson became a waitress at a bar in Cambridge. She made friends with a regular customer, who turned out to be a lab manager at Harvard and hired Hudson as a technician in her cell biology lab. Laughs Hudson, “I got that job flipping hamburgers!”
From Harvard, Hudson moved to an isolated field station run by the University of South Carolina, where she studied natural oyster reefs. On her first day, wild pigs ran across the road in front of her car. “My parents were like, ‘You are going to do what? You are leaving a job at Harvard University to go where?’” says Hudson. “But it was a great job.”
In 1999, Hudson moved to the VIMS Aquaculture Genetics and Breeding Technology Center (ABC). She spent twelve years there, solidifying her strong reputation among oyster aquaculture researchers and industry. She started out doing molecular research on oyster disease and eventually transitioned into research to support fisheries management. She advanced to become the research coordinator at ABC, working with local oyster hatcheries.
All the time she was doing research, Hudson was intrigued by the questions that came out of interactions between scientists and industry. She wanted to make those conversations happen more frequently. “I like doing research, but you do the research and you turn in your results and that’s it…I always thought, wouldn’t it be cool have a role where I could say look at this, this can help you,” Hudson says. When the chance came this winter to make the transition to the VASG Extension Program, Hudson leapt at it.
One of Hudson’s first goals is to organize a committee of commercial growers, harvesters, and hatcheries that will compile a list of their research needs. She hopes documenting these needs will facilitate a dialogue between researchers and commercial growers, to their mutual benefit.
“I’m a huge proponent of collaborative research between scientists and industry, and I think Karen’s approach is spot-on,” says VASG Director Hartley. “I am confident her contribution to the industry, VASG, and science will be invaluable.”
Certainly, Hudson is excited about the potential this cooperation has. “Its cool to be the one to find what people are doing really well and where it can benefit and pick and pull those things together.”
Hudson will also be working with commercial aquaculturists and state agencies to educate the public about aquaculture in the area. Hudson and her partners will work with scientists to develop research that addresses issues at play in local aquaculture. Among those looming on the horizon are water quality issues.
“We are lucky, in Virginia, we have a good start on aquaculture,” says Hudson. Adding, “It’s important to get the word out that [shellfish aquaculture] is not bad, that it is for the health of the Bay.” In addition to supporting coastal business, shellfish aquaculture offers real potential for improving the Bay by filtering out pollution and providing habitat for a number of species, including blue crabs. Hudson hopes further research will bolster public understanding of the benefits of Virginia’s shellfish aquaculture industry, and she’s optimistic for what research-industry partnerships can accomplish. “I think there is a lot more we can do, and I am really looking forward to the possibilities.”