Aquaculture center breeds new industry

Farming oysters as easy as ABC

  • Field Technician Linda Crewe
    Field Technician Linda Crewe  Researchers in VIMS’ Aquaculture Genetics and Breeding Technology Center are working to develop disease-resistant strains of the native oyster Crassostrea virginica. Lionel Degremont (L) and Nate Geyerhahn (R) work in the background.  
  • VIMS researchers
    VIMS researchers  VIMS is a leader in efforts to develop disease-resistant strains of native oysters for use in oyster restoration and aquaculture in Chesapeake Bay.  
  • Algal Tanks
    Algal Tanks  Algae culture tanks at the Kauffman Aquaculture Center, June 29, 2006. Photo by Mike Oesterling.  
  • Oyster Boat
    Oyster Boat  The traditional means of harvesting oysters from Chesapeake Bay involves the use of tongs and dredges to gather wild native oysters.  
  • Oysters
    Oysters  Staff members in the office of U.S. Congresswoman Jo Ann Davis (VA-1st Dist) visited the Virginia Institute of Marine Science on July 10th to learn how VIMS scientists are working to conserve, develop, and replenish Chesapeake Bay and coastal resources such as oysters, blue crabs, sharks, scallops, and shad. The visit included a briefing on the VIMS-Industry Partnership, a tour of VIMS' Oyster Hatchery and new Seawater Research Laboratory, and a trip aboard the research vessel Pelican to a VIMS observing buoy on the York River.  
  • Waterman Jeff Hammer
    Waterman Jeff Hammer  inspecting two sterile C. ariakensis oysters. VIMS is at the forefront of developing native and non-native oysters strains for field trials in Chesapeake Bay.  
  • Oyster aquaculture
    Oyster aquaculture  Pictured is oyster aquaculture in China.  
  • Ms. Laurie Sorabella
    Ms. Laurie Sorabella  founder of Oyster Reef Keepers of Virginia, shows a student in a Master Oyster Gardener's workshop at VIMS how to build a Taylor Float. Oyster gardeners use these floats to raise oysters in local waters.  
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Imagine bands of hunter-gatherers roaming Hampton Roads, stalking deer and collecting nuts to help feed the region’s 1.7 million residents. Although it might seem far-fetched, this scenario essentially describes Chesapeake Bay’s traditional oyster fishery, in which watermen gather wild stocks of the native oyster Crassostrea virginica to satisfy the palates of oyster lovers around the Bay and nation.

But local trends show that the traditional means of harvesting Chesapeake Bay’s oysters is now undergoing a sea-change, as the industry adds the techniques of aquaculture to its repertoire.

This transition owes much to the VIMS' Aquaculture Genetics and Breeding Technology Center and its Director, Dr. Stan Allen.

ABC is a leader in developing the disease-tolerant strains and grow-out techniques now being adopted by a growing number of Chesapeake Bay watermen. ABC was established at VIMS in 1997 by an act of the Virginia General Assembly. ABC researchers use selective breeding to produce oyster varieties that tolerate MSX and Dermo—diseases that kill most wild Bay oysters before they reach market size. Their efforts have lowered the disease constraint to where investment in native aquaculture is becoming profitable.

To date, ABC has developed 12 lines of disease-tolerant oysters. “The idea,” says Allen, “is to give growers the aquatic equivalent of a seed catalog from which they can choose an appropriate variety to custom fit their particular farming operation.” Future plans, he says, include “refining the domestication process to be responsive to other market traits like faster growth and greater yield.”

Use of disease-tolerant native oysters would set Chesapeake Bay growers apart from international competitors. Asian growers practice intensive culture of unimproved wild seed. In France and elsewhere, growers rear and culture an introduced species—Crassostrea gigas.

“Chesapeake growers could be unique in using hatchery-reared, native oysters in aquaculture,” says Allen. “It’s an intriguing alternative. Groups that are concerned about the introduction of a non-native oyster would like that scenario.”