Milford Lab Pioneers Oyster Crossbreeding for Climate Resilience, Improved Farming

Oyster hatchery technician Rebecca Santos screens oyster larvae from the Cawthron ultra-high density larval system during a trial run. Screening is done to monitor the growth of oyster larvae (NOAA Fisheries/Kristen Jabanoski).


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MILFORD — The future of oysters as human food and survivors of global warming will be refined in Milford at the city’s new U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration laboratory.

NOAA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture held a groundbreaking at the Rogers Avenue facility on June 24 to finalize an ongoing relationship between both federal agencies with the crossbreeding of more than 100 types of oyster at 15 such labs around the country. 

Though it will take five to 10 years to reach market with its first results, the Milford lab’s ultimate goal is to produce heartier, tastier Eastern oysters for improved shellfish farming in coastal communities from New York to New Hampshire. On Friday, the lab sent its first batch of newly bred oysters to a single commercial oyster harvester in Rhode Island for growing and further study, according to Dina Proestou, a research geneticist with the USDA.

“We just put them out on the farm. It’s going to be more like another 15 months until we get the data from the first generation,” Proestou said on Monday. “We’re going to do it again a second time, so that’s another year and a half, so I would say that the first generation of selected animals will be available within the next five years.”

The lab aims to grow Connecticut’s $30 million shellfish industry, which includes several harvesters and wholesalers in Milford, said Kristen Jabanoski, a science communications specialist at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center of NOAA.

“I think what will happen is that with the genetic improvement work that we’re doing, with our partnership with NOAA, we will help production of the Eastern oyster industry,”  she said. “So there will just be more options available, more oysters to eat, and more options of different types of oysters, or different flavors of oysters, so to speak, available to consumers.”

Commercial oyster farmers typically use two farming methods: “bottom culture” farming, in which oysters are farmed from the ocean floor to best stimulate a natural environment and create stronger shells; or “off bottom” farming, which allows oysters to be grown in cages, mesh bags or on trays suspended by ropes beneath the ocean’s surface but not at the bottom.

Local and national leaders who attended the groundbreaking, including U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., NOAA Fisheries assistant administrator Janet Coit and Milford Mayor Anthony Giannattasio, said the partnership between the federal agencies and commercial farmers would achieve advancements that would have traditionally required years to accomplish through conventional selective breeding methods.

The practices employed by the geneticists working in Milford and at the University of Rhode Island for NOAA and USDA will be repeated annually with some variations. Drawn from 40 different New England and New York populations, the first batch sent out Friday consisted of about 100 distinct crosses of oyster after having been seeded and grown in Milford in late February or March, Proestou said.

Scientists began by collecting tissues from oysters for genotyping. Initially, the larvae were grown in a high-density system at the Milford lab, a method developed in New Zealand. They floated or swam for three weeks before settling and attaching to substrata, similar to how they would in natural seabed conditions, growing to about four millimeters during this period, she said.

By next spring, they will have grown to 40 to 50 millimeters in size in a year; market size is about 70 millimeters). Scientists will be observing them regularly during this time for such things as growth, total weight, meat weight, disease resistance and other data measuring their survival characteristics, Proestou said.

Next year, three or four more commercial farms will be added to the list of growers, and the crossbreeding will continue in the same way. The NOAA scientists will grow the oysters and USDA’s scientists will evaluate their growth and health, with both seeking the best characteristics in the oysters. After about five years of this, the crossbreeding will begin to produce incremental improvements in the newly bred oysters, Proestou said.

The program calls for eventually having commercial growers growing the breeds in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island.

Milford was a fitting, logical place to breed the oysters, Proestou added.

“They have such a tremendous history in doing shellfish work. They’ve been around for nearly 100 years. Their focus has always been on shellfish, so they’ve got the facilities” she said. “They’ve got scientists with a great deal of knowledge about shellfish biology, and they’ve got a wonderful relationship with the shellfish aquaculture industry in Connecticut. So it makes sense to pool our resources and do something good for the industry.”