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.”