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LSG Helps Develop Oyster Broodstock, Robotic Oyster Farming

Louisiana Sea Grant is part of a $5 million, five-year Gulf-wide effort to develop a genetically superior oyster broodstock for aquaculture. LSG’s share of the research funding is $200,000.

The Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission Oyster Consortia’s primary objectives are to develop improved lines of eastern oysters for the oyster industry and develop platforms to distribute improved oyster seed to where it is needed. “The first phase of the project was collecting wild oysters that have superior traits,” said Brian Callam, director of the LSG oyster research lab on Grand Isle.

“The next phase is field testing,” Callam said. “The goal is to create a broodstock – or trade set – of oysters that can be made available to Alternative Oyster Culture (AOC) hatcheries and are ideal for those grow-out locations.”

AOC – sometimes called off-bottom culture – is when oysters are grown in floating cages or in cages attached to pylons. This method allows the cages to be raised and lowered to protect oysters from predators, fouling and the effects of disasters like hurricanes. LSG has operated an AOC demonstration farm on Grand Isle for more than a decade and began researching alternative oyster culture in the late 1980s.

The project could result in oysters identified as having superior traits, collected from across Louisiana, being used to propagate oyster seed that would be used for alternative oyster culture along the state’s southwest coast, for example. Louisiana oyster seed could also end up in other states, if they perform well at those other locations. “But generally speaking, Louisiana oysters don’t do well in Florida waters, and Florida oysters don’t do well in Louisiana waters,” Callam said.

The project comes out of a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) effort to coordinate oyster genetics research along the Gulf of Mexico. All five Gulf states are participating in the project.

Callam also is involved in a $10 million, five-year U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) grant, led by the University of Maryland. LSG’s share of the research funding is $740,000.

The project will explore whether robots and drones can be used in traditional on-bottom oyster culture. “Right now, crop management is accomplished by dredging a reef or using a cane pole to poke around and see if you hit a hard spot (group of harvestable oysters),” Callam said. Dredging is generally imprecise and can have negative environmental impacts, even for the oyster crop. Although the cane pole method is more precise in finding clusters of oysters, it’s time consuming and labor intensive.

Through the use of robots, drones, high-precision GPS, underwater imaging and sonar positioning, the researchers hope to develop precision oyster grow-out and harvesting methods. The high-tech gear would map water bottoms where oysters are growing and help in determining when and exactly where the oysters are ready for harvest – streamlining the harvesting process. The technology could also be used to seed oyster reefs.

Callam’s part of the in the project is to collect data on environmental conditions at oyster leases so that information can be fed into the robots. Then Louisiana field tests of the equipment will take place.