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Selecting a Better Oyster – Part I

Sea Grant Research Supports Industry Growth

by Janet Krenn, Virginia Sea Grant

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.

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, and the 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.

This is part 1 of a 3 part series. See also part 2 and part 3

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