‘A farming-in-the-sea industry’: UNCW Shellfish Hatchery looks to develop the best oysters in the state

See how research can help farmers make better oysters.
Published: Jan. 27, 2022 at 8:16 AM EST
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Research is being done in our own backyard to develop oysters that grow the best in North Carolina.

Scientists at the Shellfish Hatchery at UNCW’s Center for Marine Science use selective breeding, which is when researchers pick the best animals to reproduce, in the hope that favorable traits will be passed on to the next generation.

“The early life stages of these animals are microscopic, so we spend a lot of time looking into tanks of water that you really can’t see much,” said Dr. Ami E. Wilbur, director of the UNCW Shellfish Research Hatchery. “We are trying to develop oysters, scallops, and clams that grow well in North Carolina.”

So what makes a good oyster? Researchers at the hatchery look for big oysters with symmetry and a deep shell cup.

The hatchery then partners with oyster farmers around the region to improve their shellfish production by helping “them select the best stocks, raise the best stocks,” said Dr. Ken Halanych, executive director of the UNCW Center for Marine Science.

“We’re certainly doing the research and development to help the farmers do a better job of growing oysters that have been supplied to restaurants and local seafood markets and so we directly influence that production,” Wilbur said.

According to a factsheet published by NC State University in 2021, oyster farming has emerged as a key coastal industry. In fact, the university’s estimates show that farmed oysters brought in $14 million dollars and 271 jobs to our state in 2019.

And the UNCW students involved in the hatchery might decide to go into the industry themselves.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity for students to get involved in hands-on science and we have quite a few of them that have gone on to join the industry, they now have farms in North Carolina and they’re growing oysters to supply our community with safe seafood,” Wilbur said.

Oysters might be the main focus, but the hatchery also works with clams and scallops.

“We are also looking at other species besides oysters that farmers can grow on their leases for consumption, so we’re trying to develop a farming-in-the-sea industry for the state of North Carolina,” Wilbur said.

All in an effort to make sure the food that ends up on the chef’s table, or even your table at home, was grown sustainably.

“UNCW connects to the average person in a lot of ways that they may not realize,” Halanych said. “It’s a chain and there are a lot of pieces involved, but UNCW provides a critical piece early on in that process to help grow the best oysters, the best tasting oysters.”

Proving that farm fresh doesn’t have to come from the barnyard.

This work is also important because more than 100 years ago, annual harvests of wild oysters topped half a million bushels. However, wild oyster populations plummeted in the years since because of over-harvesting, habitat loss and disease.

Shellfish aquaculture helps restore those wild oyster populations by providing a sustainable alternative to wild oyster harvesting, allowing them to rebound.

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