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NOAA Sea Grant and Ocean Acidification Program projects to examine impacts of stressors on shellfish aquaculture

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By Milthon Lujan

USA – NOAA Sea Grant and the Ocean Acidification Program awarded more than $2.4 million to support projects that will address the impacts of multiple stressors on and increase resilience in shellfish aquaculture through research and industry partnerships. 

Shellfish aquaculture is among the fastest-growing sectors of food production, both globally and nationally. However, the vulnerability of shellfish to multiple stressors acts as a constraint on the growth of the aquaculture industry. In addition to ocean and coastal acidification, potential stressors include temperature, salinity, hypoxia, pathogens and parasites, harmful algal blooms, and environmental contaminants.

Four projects covering U.S. waters in the Gulf of Mexico, Mid-Atlantic, New England, and West Coast were selected through a joint, competitive funding opportunity. The selected projects will strengthen relationships between the shellfish aquaculture industry and the aquaculture research community; develop scientific knowledge on the impacts of ocean and coastal acidification in combination with other stressors to shellfish aquaculture; and create data products, tools, technologies, management practices and other deliverables that are broadly applicable to building resilience within the shellfish aquaculture sector.

These projects will expand collaborations between researchers and the shellfish aquaculture industry throughout all aspects of the scientific process, from project conceptualization to execution to dissemination of knowledge and development of deliverables. For this co-production of knowledge framework, at least one researcher and one shellfish grower will co-lead each project, and project investigators will work together to bolster aquaculture communities of practice. Moreover, between 14 and 35 percent of each project’s awarded funds are earmarked for equitably compensating growers for their contributions.

The results will bolster NOAA’s Blue Economy Initiative by supporting U.S. seafood production and building coastal resiliency. Specifically, these investments support the goals of NOAA and the Department of Commerce and are consistent with Sea Grant’s focus area of Sustainable Fisheries and Aquaculture. Learn more about Sea Grant’s work in aquaculture and ocean acidification.

List of NOAA Sea Grant/Ocean Acidification Program Funded Projects

Increasing hatchery production of larval eastern oysters, Crassostrea virginica, in the northern Gulf of Mexico through optimization of carbonate chemistry and salinity in source water

Region: Gulf of Mexico; Federal Funding: $895,884 (35% allocated for shellfish growers)

Co-Principal Investigators:

Reginald Blaylock, Assistant Director, Thad Cochran Marine Aquaculture Center, University of Southern Mississippi, Ocean Springs, MS

Eric Powell, Professor, Department of Coastal Sciences, University of Southern Mississippi, Ocean Springs, MS

Megan Gima, Aquaculture Biologist, Thad Cochran Marine Aquaculture Center, University of Southern Mississippi, Ocean Springs, MS

Xinping Hu, Chair for Ecosystem Science and Modeling, Harte Research Institute, Texas A&M University Corpus Christi, Corpus Christi, TX

Angelos Apeitos, Hatchery Manager, Thad Cochran Marine Aquaculture Center, University of Southern Mississippi, Ocean Springs, MS

Phillip J. Waters, Assistant Director for the Auburn Marine Extension & Research Center, Mobile, AL

Scott Rikard, Manager, Auburn University Shellfish Laboratory, Dauphin Island, AL

Russell Grice, Oyster Aquaculture Business Specialist, Auburn University/MS-AL Sea Grant, Dauphin Island, AL

Don McMahon, Owner, Pensacola Bay Oyster Company LLC, Pensacola, FL

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Terry Boyd, Owner, Magnolia Key Oyster Company, Ocean Springs, MS

The Gulf of Mexico (GOM) contains the largest remaining natural oyster (Crassostrea virginica) reefs in the world and off-bottom oyster aquaculture is expanding in Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, Texas, and Mississippi. However, natural and anthropogenic events have converged to threaten the GOM oyster industry. In the northern Gulf of Mexico, acidification accompanied by summertime bottom water hypoxia is projected to worsen due to climate change. Freshwater discharges and unpredictable fluctuations in salinity also threaten oyster growing habitats in the Mississippi Sound and other areas in northern Gulf of Mexico. The temporal and geographic trends in salinity, carbonate chemistry, and other water quality parameters in northern GOM coastal areas from which oyster hatcheries would draw water are currently
unknown. Likewise, the manner in which these multiple stressors interact and correlate with hatchery production in the northern GOM is also unknown. Therefore, this project will investigate the effects of brackish water under different alkalinity regimes, acidification conditions, and salinities on the survival and development of larval eastern oysters. To achieve this work, researchers from the University of Southern Mississippi, Auburn University, and Texas A&M University are partnering with shellfish growers from across the region. Water quality parameters such as temperature, salinity, pH, and dissolved oxygen will be monitored at select sites near existing and/or proposed hatcheries in the northern GOM, and the data collected will be correlated with oyster production. Laboratory experiments will also be conducted to examine the individual and combined effects of salinity and aragonite saturation levels on larval oyster survival and growth. The environmental and experimental data will be analyzed and synthesized to identify optimum conditions for oyster larval survival, and this information will then serve as the foundation for improved management strategies and specific guidelines for GOM shellfish hatcheries.

Improving resilience of hatchery-reared blue mussels (Mytilus edulis) to interactive effects of ocean acidification and warming with diet and seawater buffering

Region: New England; Federal Funding: $413,240 (17% allocated for shellfish growers)

Co-Principal Investigators:

Dr. Robert Holmberg, Research Scientist, Downeast Institute, Beals, ME

Evan Young, Owner, Blue Hill Bay Mussels, Hancock, ME

Matt Moretti, Owner, Bangs Island Mussels, Portland, ME

Kyle Pepperman, Shellfish Production Manager, Downeast Institute, Beals, ME

Dr. Brian Beal, Professor of Marine Ecology & Director of the Marine Science Field Station, University of Maine at Machias and Director of Research, Downeast Institute, Beals, ME

Marine ecosystems are under pressure from anthropogenic CO2 emissions, which contribute to ocean warming and, upon dissolution in seawater, acidification. The Gulf of Maine warmed faster than 99% of the global ocean between 2004-2013, and has experienced marine heatwaves during and after that period. Concomitantly, coastal seawater around Maine is expected to acidify faster than most other regions in the United States, with aragonite saturation state decreasing to 1.5 (a threshold of disruption to calcification and development in shelled mollusc larvae) by 2050. Marine bivalve aquaculture is a growing industry in Maine, yet early life stage bivalves are believed to be most vulnerable to ocean and coastal acidification (OCA) and other environmental stressors. Despite evidence that diet restriction will interact
with OCA/warming to diminish bivalve condition in the wild, to date, no studies have inverted that premise to test whether diet enhancement can improve bivalve resilience to OCA/warming in the hatchery. To address this knowledge gap, this project will test the efficacy of various alternative diet regimes to bolster M. edulis resilience to experimental OCA and warming, as well as test for an interaction between diet enhancement and seawater buffering on both laboratory and commercial scales. If successful, this mitigation strategy could easily be implemented by hatcheries. The strategy could complement existing protocols for seawater buffering, or even replace buffering where equipment for monitoring and controlling seawater carbonate chemistry is prohibitively expensive. This project also
seeks to strengthen an existing community of practice composed of mussel growers and researchers at the Downeast Institute and the University of Maine. By co-producing a technology transfer and outreach plan, this team will help ensure the information generated by this project reaches the shellfish aquaculture community in Maine and beyond.

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Susceptibility of Atlantic surfclams (Spisula solidissima) grown in the coastal ocean to multiple environmental stressors

Region: Mid-Atlantic; Federal Funding: $518,693 (19% allocated for shellfish growers)

Co-Principal Investigators:

Dr. Daphne Munroe, Associate Professor, Rutgers the State University of New Jersey, Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory, Port Norris, NJ

Lisa Calvo, Marine Scientist and New Jersey Sea Grant Aquaculture Program Coordinator, Rutgers the State University of New Jersey, Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory, Port Norris, NJ

Dr. Ximing Guo, Distinguished Professor, Rutgers the State University of New Jersey, Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory, Port Norris, NJ

Sean Towers, Hatchery Manager, Rutgers the State University of New Jersey, Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory, Port Norris, NJ

Guy Simmons, Senior Vice President of Marketing, Product Development, Fisheries Science and Government Relations, South Jersey Surf Clam Company, Sea Watch International, Ltd., Easton, MD

Joe Myers, Director of Marine Innovation & Technology, South Jersey Surf Clam Company, Sea Watch International, Ltd., Easton, MD

Sam Martin, Chief Operating Officer, Atlantic Capes Fisheries Inc., Cape May, NJ

Tom Dameron, Government Relations & Fisheries Science Liaison, Surfside Seafood Products, Port Norris, NJ

Dr. Shannon L. Meseck, Research Chemist, NOAA Northeast Fishery Science Center, Milford, CT

In the Northeast, the Atlantic surfclam (Spisula solidissima) is a species that is beginning to be cultured, yet it remains underdeveloped. Advancing surfclam farming requires addressing the challenges presented by the Northeast’s unique and changing coastal environment. A key unknown that this proposal aims to address is how farming this crop could be enhanced by growing it in the habitat it naturally occupies – the coastal ocean – rather than coastal backbays. Farming surfclams in the coastal ocean would make use of clean, nutrient-rich ocean habitat that is currently underutilized. However, this habitat is challenging to work in, requiring heavy vessel and coastal infrastructure. Moreover, this habitat is subject to ocean acidification and warming water conditions. Surfclams are susceptible to both of these environmental stressors independently (Narváez et al., 2015; Pousse et al., 2020), but the interactive influence of these stressors is unknown. This project will expand our understanding of multistressors on surfclams and will provide both existing farmers and the surfclam fishing sector with commercially relevant data for use in farm-scale business planning. The growth and survival of surfclam seed under various combinations of carbonate chemistry and temperature will be assess under controlled, laboratory conditions. The growth and survival of surfclam seed will also be assessed under commercial farm-scale conditions in the coastal ocean, where environmental parameters including pCO2, pH, temperature, dissolved oxygen, chlorophyll, and salinity will be continuously recorded. Finally, this project will support an existing community of practice (composed of Rutgers University, the Northeast Fisheries Science Centers, and the surfclam fishing industry). The experimental data will identify environmental thresholds and be used in a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis, which will help the industry refine business practices, improve culturing protocols, and inform planning, siting and development of surfclam aquaculture efforts.

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Mitigating the effects of multiple stressors in oysters: comparison of diploid and triploid Crassostrea gigas

Region: West Coast; Federal Funding: $672,026 (14% allocated for shellfish growers)

Co-Principal Investigators:

Dr. Jacqueline L. Padilla-Gamiño, School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, WA

Dr. Jonathan P. Davis, Baywater Shellfish Farms, Bainbridge Island, WA

Dr. Paul McElhany, Northwest Fisheries Science Center, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Manchester, WA

Dr. Shallin Busch, Northwest Fisheries Science Center, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Manchester, WA

Ocean warming, acidification, and hypoxia are increasing threats in the world’s coastal waters, with potentially severe consequences for marine organisms and ocean economies. Waters in the Northeast Pacific have naturally low pH values, making this region particularly vulnerable to the effects of acidification. While the Pacific Northwest region is a leading producer of farmed shellfish in the US, summer mortalities of Pacific oysters Crassostrea gigas are a growing concern for the shellfish industry. There is also an increasing concern that triploid (i.e., seedless) oysters are more sensitive to summer mortality events; this is problematic because in this region, triploids are preferred over diploids since triploids grow faster and diploids are less marketable during their summer spawning season. Previous work suggests that oyster mortalities are the result of stress associated with multiple stressors. However, not much is known about the mechanisms related to this mortality and the extent to which ploidy (number of chromosome copies) influences physiological tolerance. Researchers at the University of Washington and the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, and shellfish growers from Baywater Shellfish will collaborate to integrate oceanographic measurements, field work, and laboratory experiments to examine the physiological tolerance and survival of diploid and triploid oysters under multiple stressors. The natural variability of pH, temperature, and dissolved oxygen will be monitored on commercial farms and the influences of these conditions on the survival, gametogenesis and physiology of the farms’ diploid and triploid oysters will be examined. The effects of pH, temperature, and dissolved oxygen on oyster performance will also be assessed in a controlled, laboratory setting. Finally, a decision tool for growers will be developed by combining economic information with the data collected from the farm and laboratory experiments. This simple-to-use planning tool will help Puget Sound shellfish growers balance the risks and benefits of planting triploid oysters (that are marketable in summer) against the potentially higher mortality of triploids compared to diploids as a function of the multi-stressor environment.

Source: NOAA Seagrant

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