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Seahawks Help Grow Aquaculture in North Carolina

Monday, August 08, 2016

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Written by Katie Merritt ’16 and Amy Finelli; Photo by Katie Merritt

The typical idea of farming includes a picturesque field of crops, cattle grazing in the distance and a big red barn perched on a nearby hillside. Students, staff and faculty at UNCW’s Shellfish Research Hatchery (SRH) are challenging this mental picture. Although Seahawks may not work amber fields of grain, they do further local aquaculture. Webster’s Dictionary defines aquaculture as “the cultivation of aquatic organisms, especially for food.”  Since 2011, the Shellfish Research Hatchery, located at UNCW’s Crest Research Park, is conducting research on shellfish in North Carolina waters, as well as partnering with regional farmers to improve shellfish production on our coastline.   

The SRH spans more than 11,000 square feet and is the only research hatchery in North Carolina dedicated entirely to shellfish. This focus is justified by the state of shellfish populations in North Carolina. For example, oysters were formerly a major industry in our state. Over the past 100 years, oyster harvesting has declined from 2.5 million bushels annually in the early 1900s to about 42,000 annually in the 1990s. 

Dr. Ami Wilbur, associate professor in the Department of Biology and Marine Biology and director of the SRH, is leading a research effort to selectively breed oysters in order to develop lines of oysters that grow and survive well in NC waters. 

By selectively breeding oysters, the SRH team hopes to contribute to a new future for aquaculture. The process is relatively simple. Oysters were initially collected from waters across the state. The oysters are spawned in the hatchery and the resulting larvae are cultured until they transition from their swimming phase to their more familiar phase of being cemented to other oysters. In the hatchery, the larvae attach themselves to ground up oyster shell, which allows the oysters to grow as separate individuals instead of as clumps. These small oysters, known as “seed,” are grown to maturation on the hatchery’s research farm located on the Intracoastal Waterway behind the Center for Marine Science. At the age of 24 months, the team selects the best oysters by size and shape to spawn the next generation, hopefully increasing the quality of each coming generation. Now just completing the spawning of the third generation, the researchers are beginning to see improvement in the proportion of oysters that reach market size (3 in.) in 18 months. Wild oysters generally need 2-5 years to reach that size depending on location.

“We currently are part of a NOAA-funded project to test different grow out methods on different farms around the state," Wilbur says. "This project partners UNCW with NC SeaGrant and Carteret Community College and involves five different commercial growers from all over the state. The hatchery will provide the seed from four different lines to all growers. By monitoring the growth and survival over the next year or so, we hope to see what methods work best in which areas.” 

Wilbur indicates that student involvement in the hatchery program has been critical to its success. Students participate in all aspects of the research program and are important in maintaining the hatchery culture systems. “Students can get involved in the hatchery in a number of ways," Wilbur adds. "Many students have completed direct independent studies in the hatchery, learning about hatchery operations and shellfish farming. Honors student have conducted thesis research on topics ranging from predator-induced defenses in oysters to the effect of LED light on microalgal growth. Still others come to us as work-study students.”

This has been the hatchery’s most successful season. Since late March, the team has conducted nine spawns that have yielded over a million oyster seed. Since the team finished spawning oysters in June, the students have been busy helping to nurture the small seed until they reach a size that can be distributed to the industry partners.

Sean Hardison is currently a graduate student in UNCW’s marine biology graduate program and is supported by a research assistantship in the hatchery. Since 2015, he has been researching the bioacoustics of oyster reefs and exploring what role sound might play in the settlement of oysters. This research may provide valuable insight into the process of oyster settlement that could be used to improve this rate in the hatchery, which in turn would increase the overall productivity of the hatchery.

“My hope is that the work I do here contributes to the ongoing discussion of coastal conservation and restoration that is so incredibly important to our way of life in North Carolina," he says.

Wilbur sees a bright future for the SRH, with increased funding from the state that will allow the facility and its team to contribute to the development of shellfish aquaculture in NC.

“With the new resources provided by the state, we are expanding our team and modifying some of the production systems," she says. "These changes will increase our ability to produce oysters and other shellfish, and expand our partnerships with the industry.”

For questions and more information about UNCW’s Shellfish Research Hatchery, please contact Dr. Ami Wilbur at wilbura@uncw.edu.