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NOAA Fisheries and USDA's Agricultural Research Service to Breed Better Oysters

June 28, 2024

NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service cut the ribbon on the new Northeast Oyster Breeding Center on June 24, 2024, in Milford, Connecticut.

A woman and 2 men cut a blue ribbon with 2 pairs of large scissors as a group of 2 women and 8 men look on.

NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service launched a new, state-of-the-art Northeast Oyster Breeding Center in June 2024. The center is an investment that will bolster shellfish farming in the Northeast.

Scientists will use advanced selective breeding methods to develop better-performing lines of Eastern oysters to boost production. They aim to breed disease-resistant oysters that are resilient in the face of current and changing environmental conditions in the Northeast’s diverse oyster growing areas.

At the ribbon cutting on June 24 in Milford, Connecticut, NOAA Fisheries’ Assistant Administrator Janet Coit explained, “Our two agencies each bring different but critical strengths to this effort. NOAA Fisheries Milford Lab brings its innovation in shellfish hatchery and nursery systems. The USDA's Agricultural Research Service contributes expertise in genetics, genomics, and performance evaluation. Harnessing our collective skills, the team is poised to achieve advancements that would have otherwise taken years to accomplish.”

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Two women wearing purple nitrile gloves carefully remove eggs and sperm from oysters while a man and a woman look on.
Milford Lab Shellfish Biologist Katie McFarland (left) and Agricultural Research Service Geneticist Dina Proestou (right) strip spawn oysters by removing their eggs and sperm to create the first generation of oysters while NOAA Fisheries Division Chief Lisa Milke (left) and Connecticut Sea Grant Liaison Zach Gordon (right) look on. Credit: NOAA Fisheries / Kristen Jabanoski

Spawning Success

In a renovated hatchery at the NOAA Fisheries Milford Laboratory, 50 acrylic cones with continuously flowing, filtered seawater gently bubbled as tiny swimming oyster larvae munched on algae. In April 2024, scientists from NOAA Fisheries and USDA Agricultural Research Service spawned the first generation of oysters in both a traditional culture system in Kington, Rhode Island, and in the new high-density flow-through larval culture system in Milford, Connecticut, the first of its kind in North America.

NOAA and USDA will grow these juvenile, or “seed,” oysters in their hatcheries until they reach 5 millimeters, roughly the size of a pencil eraser. Then the young oysters will go to oyster grower partners while scientists continue to evaluate their growth and performance. This year, Moonstone Oysters in Rhode Island will be growing oysters from both hatcheries.

Building a High-tech Hatchery

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A man gestures toward a rack of 50 acrylic cones filled with flowing seawater.
NOAA Milford Laboratory Director Gary Wikfors shows visitors the new hatchery developments at the Milford Lab, including the Cawthron Ultra-high Density Larval System that allows that lab to grow many families of oysters on a small footprint. Credit: NOAA Fisheries / Kate Naughten

The Milford Laboratory is the birthplace of modern shellfish farming. The lab’s hatchery was recently modernized; it now has significantly more capacity to grow oysters and keep families or lines of oysters separate, key to selective breeding.

New developments include a Cawthron Ultra-high Density Larval System. This flow-through system developed by the Cawthron Institute in New Zealand allows a hatchery to grow many families of oysters on a small footprint. The lab uses two photobioreactors to grow large quantities of algae, also called phytoplankton, as nutritious baby food for the oysters. Milford Lab scientists built a new quarantine system to safely house out-of-state oysters that are the broodstock, or parents, of the selectively bred larvae. They also built nursery systems for progressively larger juvenile oysters as they grow.

Milford Laboratory Director Gary Wikfors said, “The NOAA Fisheries Milford Lab is expanding on our 90-plus year heritage as innovators at the forefront of cultivating shellfish, from developing the Milford Method to breed and grow shellfish in the 1950s to growing oysters in the first flow through ultra-high density larval system in the country. Our close collaboration with USDA Agricultural Research Service allows the breeding center to benefit from the unique expertise of both agencies.”

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Three women and three men hold small juvenile oysters in their hands.
(Left to right) Northeast Oyster Breeding Center Technicians Jill Pegnataro, Isaac Reeves, Rebecca Santos, NOAA Milford Lab Hatchery Manager Dave Veilleux, Copps Island Oyster Grower Jimmy Bloom, and Northeast Oyster Breeding Center Technician Hannah Colwell hold 5 millimeter juvenile oysters in front of the bottle upwellers they were grown in. These larvae from Copps Island Oysters were grown in a practice round at the Milford Lab’s new hatchery. Credit: NOAA Fisheries / Kristen Jabanoski

Breeding a More Resilient Oyster

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Small juvenile oyster shells magnified by a microscope.
Juvenile oysters magnified by a microscope that were spawned in April 2024 as part of the Northeast Oyster Breeding Center at the NOAA Milford Lab. Credit: NOAA Fisheries / Isaac Reeves

USDA Agricultural Research Service’s expertise in genetics and genomics has long supported farming. The agency is now applying this science to oysters. “There’s a need for oysters that are resilient or tolerant to disease, but also retain optimal performance across the Northeast’s oyster production environments,” Caird Rexroad III, the Agricultural Research Service’s National Program Leader for Aquaculture explained. “More comprehensive information on oyster physiology and genes associated with important traits is needed to facilitate genetic improvement.”

The East Coast Shellfish Growers Association represents 2,300 shellfish growers from Maine to Texas. They collectively harvest about $195 million worth of sustainably farmed shellfish annually. Executive Director Bob Rheault said, “Because Eastern oysters are grown from Canada to Brazil, they need to be able to thrive in a wide range of habitats. We are looking forward to having oysters that can survive the five different parasites and diseases that afflict oysters, that have the perfect shape for the raw bars, that grow quickly and can tolerate various climate change challenges.”

A Win for Sustainable Seafood

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One woman and four men stand in front of a dock on Long Island Sound. The woman is holding a navy blue certificate labeled "Christopher S. Murphy".
NOAA Fisheries Assistant Administrator Janet Coit holds a certificate of accomplishment from Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy. Front row, left to right: Janet Coit, Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal, and Jameson Foulke, Outreach Assistant to Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy. Back row, left to right: Northeast Fisheries Science Center Director Jon Hare and Milford Laboratory Director Gary Wikfors. Credit: NOAA Fisheries / Kate Naughten.

Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal showed his support for aquaculture innovation in the state by participating in the ribbon cutting ceremony. Senator Blumenthal said, “This center is a historic investment in shellfish farming, which is vital to Connecticut—tens of millions of dollars in sales, and hundreds of employees. It's also a matter of culture and heritage. Connecticut oysters are the best, and will be even better as a result of the oyster breeding center. The scientific work done here will benefit shellfish farming everywhere.”

Danielle Blacklock, Director of NOAA’s Office of Aquaculture, emphasized the importance of this initiative to local and sustainable seafood in written remarks, “At a time when 75–85 percent of our seafood is imported, shellfish aquaculture provides our coastal communities with healthy local seafood and jobs. The Northeast Oyster Breeding Center is a significant investment to ensure the resiliency of American aquaculture.”

The ribbon cutting ceremony concluded with a tour of the new hatchery in Milford. Visitors examined both tiny oyster larvae under a microscope and larger juvenile oysters nearly ready for the farm. Now the work ramps up: “Each year, we will use modern genetic tools to produce oysters that perform better than the previous generation,” said Agricultural Research Service Research Geneticist Thomas Delomas. Rheault expressed, “I am very excited about the next 10–15 years of oyster farming. Good luck and godspeed.”

For more information contact the Northeast Fisheries Science Center Communications team.

Last updated by Northeast Fisheries Science Center on June 28, 2024