The University of Louisiana at Lafayette is leading a three-year, $14 million research initiative to develop oyster broodstock capable of surviving in low-salinity environments, according to a university statement.
Leveraging opportunities and strategic partnerships to advance tolerant oysters for restoration—or LO-SPAT—is designed to help maintain shellfish populations and support the seafood industry. The Department of Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries is funding the project.
Beth Stauffer, associate professor in the biology department at UL Lafayette, is the principal investigator of LO-SPAT. Stauffer, a phytoplankton ecologist, and other UL Lafayette researchers are collaborating with scientists from LSU AgCenter and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Horn Point Laboratory. Spat-Tech, a Mississippi-based oyster farming company, is the private sector partner.
“The goal is to examine oyster populations that are tolerant to low salinity. We’re studying how low salinity — and other environmental stressors — are taken into account, and we’re identifying inherited traits that make some oysters more resilient than others,” Stauffer said.
The LO-SPAT team pools expertise in coastal and restoration ecology, environmental monitoring, organismal and molecular biology, economics, aquaculture and oyster farming, according to the release. Researchers collectively examine the entire life cycle of the oyster, from larvae and broodstock to juveniles that can be deployed to nurseries and ultimately to restored reef sites.
Creating sustainable farming operations begins with collecting wild oysters and then introducing them to stressors; the next step is to use modern molecular tools to determine which oysters are able to grow under adverse conditions. “These oysters are then reared over multiple generations through a process known as selective breeding, which allows producers to build a better oyster using their natural genetic diversity,” Stauffer explained.
Louisiana is one of the top oyster producing states in the country. However, the drop in production has had ecological and economic consequences. Increased rainfall and flooding in Louisiana and along the Gulf Coast in recent years has introduced large amounts of fresh water into oyster habitats and reefs, according to the UL statement. This is problematic because shellfish need at least some salt to live and more to grow and reproduce.
Jack Montoucet, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, said the LO-SPAT initiative provides “a comprehensive approach to solving a state, regional and national problem and we are excited to play a part in this regard”.
“Developing an oyster that can tolerate low salinity for an extended period – which we currently don’t have – is important to maintaining the industry as we know it. And with all the search capabilities that exist today, we should be able to do just that.
Oysters are essential to the health of coastal ecosystems. They filter huge volumes of water and build reefs that provide habitat for fish and other marine life. Shellfish are also vital to the economy and provide thousands of jobs. The Gulf of Mexico produces 46% of the oysters in the United States, and the regional oyster industry is worth $66 million annually, according to the UL release.
Promoting sustainable ecosystems and providing habitats for commercial industries is one of the main objectives of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority’s Coastal Master Plan.
The findings generated as a result of the LO-SPAT initiative are an integral part of this effort. The same goes for UL Lafayette’s research labs, including at its 50-acre Ecology Center. The center has a 15,000 square foot building that houses spaces for a broodstock facility and a laboratory.
The construction and operation of broodstock facilities at the Ecology Center are overseen by a team of staff. In addition to innovations in oyster broodstock, researchers will conduct field sampling using sensors deployed in estuaries to characterize the environments in which oysters live and acoustic monitoring to quantify reef health. of oysters.
Other key LO-SPAT researchers include Durga Poudel, professor of geosciences at the Ray P. Authement College of Sciences at UL Lafayette; Dr. Natalia Sidorovskaia, professor who heads the physics department at UL Lafayette; and Dr. Geoffrey Stewart, associate professor at UL Lafayette’s BI Moody III College of Business Administration.