History of the Milford Laboratory
Milford Lab: Approaching a Century of Advancing Aquaculture
NOAA Fisheries’ Milford Laboratory, a world leader in aquaculture science, was officially established in the 1930s at the request of Connecticut’s oyster industry to help expand sustainable oyster harvests. The lab developed a technique to spawn shellfish with two shells, we call them bivalves, nearly year-round and to rear all life stages (embryonic, larval, and adult). This became known as the "Milford Method" and is still used worldwide in the aquaculture industry.
Today, the Milford Lab continues to conduct state-of-the-art science that informs management for the sustainable expansion of aquaculture, provides services to the shellfish aquaculture industry, and advances new technologies through collaborative research. We also seek to understand interactions between aquaculture practices and the environment and the effects of a changing climate and ocean on shellfish. In this gallery, you will learn about our lab’s history and many contributions to American aquaculture from the 1920s to today.
By the late 1920s, a small seasonal research station was established in Milford, Connecticut. The United States Bureau of Commercial Fisheries assigned Dr. H. F. Prytherch to Milford in 1928 to study Connecticut’s oyster industry. He completed his research in a donated shed on the grounds of the Connecticut Oyster Farm Co. before he was reassigned to North Carolina.
Dr. Victor Loosanoff was assigned to Milford as a full-time fishery biologist in November 1931 and started work in early 1932. At the time, oyster growers collected larvae that had set on other oyster shells, known as "spat" or “seed,” from the water and grew them on shellfish beds leased from the state. Loosanoff hoped to make the oyster industry more productive. His early studies focused on predicting the timing of oyster settlement and controlling predators. He distributed his findings directly to local oystermen through the Milford Laboratory Bulletins. In 1935, Loosanoff became the laboratory director, and Congress established a permanent laboratory at the industry’s request. Also in 1935, Rita Riccio joined the lab as a stenographer, eventually becoming Milford’s technical publications editor for more than 50 years.
The original two-story brick Milford Laboratory building and the laboratory director’s cottage were completed in 1940. The new building included wet labs with running seawater, a darkroom, and a small library. During World War II, the lab studied the effects of seawater on ammunition to support the war effort. The staff also continued extensive studies of the effects of environmental variables, such as temperature and salinity, on oyster biology, and began investigating the effects of pollutants on oysters.
In 1951, a 50-foot research vessel was commissioned in New Haven for use at the laboratory. The vessel was named the R/V Shang Wheeler, after Charles “Shang'' Wheeler, the general manager of the Connecticut Oyster Farm Company and a strong supporter of the lab. By the late 1950s, Loosanoff and his staff were developing protocols for spawning shellfish in the laboratory. Loosanoff hired Dr. Ravenna Ukeles to serve as Milford’s algae expert. Her charge was to figure out how to grow the right algae to feed shellfish larvae. Ravenna helped develop the Milford Method for shellfish culture, building on pioneering studies conducted by laboratory scientists including algal researcher Robert Guillard and shellfish biologist Harry Davis. During the late 1950s, Milford Lab began using scientific scuba diving to study farming practices with the aim to better manage farmed and natural oyster beds.
During the 1960s, Ravenna Ukeles embarked on extensive algal culture studies to find the best strains to feed shellfish larvae at each stage of development. Loosanoff was reassigned to the U.S. Commercial Fisheries Laboratory at Tiburon, California, in 1962. The same year Dr. James Hanks became the second director of the Milford Laboratory, with a focus on transferring technology to the shellfish industry. He coordinated the design and construction of a modern marine laboratory building, which was completed in 1966. This building included a larger wet laboratory and dedicated shellfish hatchery rooms, as well as a space for the microalgal culture collection. Dr. Arlene Longwell founded Milford’s shellfish genetics research program in 1966, and Dr. Sheila Stiles began her work in shellfish genetics as the first African American woman scientist at the laboratory in the mid 1960s. Their work was the first sustained effort to selectively breed oysters for high performance in aquaculture. More than 50 years later, Dr. Sheila Stiles continues to advance shellfish genetics.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was founded in 1970, and the Milford Lab became part of this new agency. During the decade of the first Earth Day, environmental awareness increased on a national level, including interest in the effects of pollutants on marine life. Staff conducted extensive research on physiological response of crustaceans, fish, and shellfish to industrial contaminants, especially heavy metals and petroleum compounds, in lab and field studies. Our scientists published data on the toxicity of many chemical compounds for bivalves and other commercially important marine animals.
Scientific diving at Milford resumed in 1979 when researchers used scuba to develop aquaculture methods to grow bay scallops, northern quahogs, and surfclams. Milford scientists also developed techniques for spawning and rearing these shellfish species in a hatchery. Microbiologists investigated and developed control methods for various bacterial species which caused mortality in shellfish larvae. At the request of shellfish growers, our lab held the first Milford Aquaculture Seminar in 1975 to develop a technology exchange for aquaculture.
During the 1980s, Milford staff brought laboratory methodologies to shipboard studies to measure marine organism health in natural environments (one goal of the Ocean Pulse study). Biochemist Dusty Gould studied the bioenergetic response of fish and shellfish to stressors in field studies in Long Island Sound and the Northwest Atlantic and in laboratory experiments. She described chemical compounds that allow marine animals to survive in contaminated environments. Microbiologists collected and processed sediment and water column samples from dump sites and control areas to detect toxic bacteria. As part of an environmental monitoring program, scientists measured the blood chemistry of winter flounder and other flatfish species to compare the health of fish from Northeast coastal sites. Fishery biologist John Ziskowski used X-rays to examine skeletal changes in fish exposed to contaminants in the environment. Milford scientists also monitored shell disease prevalence in New England’s lobster populations.
The lab established a modern dive program with a system of certifications for scientific divers in 1980. Using scuba, our staff explored predator protected field growth of clams burrowed in sediment in cages and bay scallops in lantern nets. The lab made strides in public outreach by starting an annual open house that continues to this day.
Dr. James Hanks stepped down as laboratory director in 1985 but continued to support the laboratory as a liaison to the aquaculture industry until his retirement in 1990. Dr. Anthony Calabrese became the third Milford Laboratory director. He founded the Flatfish Biology Conference in 1986.
After a 40-year career, Dr. Ravenna Ukeles retired in 1989. During her tenure she expanded the Milford Lab’s algal culture collection, published dozens of foundational papers on algal and shellfish research, and established the Milford Microalgal Culture Workshop to train scientists and shellfish growers on the Milford Method.
The Milford Lab got a flow cytometer in 1989, becoming an early adopter of this new technology. This instrument allows scientists to measure a group of very small cells or particles and has been used to study microbiology and shellfish immune systems.
During the 1990s, the Milford Laboratory conducted a number of studies on winter flounder biology. These studies included research on reproductive success, comparing survival of eggs and larvae collected at various geographic locations. Staff also investigated the effects of fish pathogens on flounder larvae. Field studies in collaboration with the James J. Howard Marine Sciences Laboratory and Rutgers University assessed the value of eelgrass beds, macroalgal areas, and unvegetated habitats in three major Northeast estuaries for the growth and survival of young flounder and tautog. Continuing aquaculture research explored feeding shellfish with algae with differing nutritional profiles to optimize growth and survival at various life stages.
In 1995, a collaboration began between the Milford Lab and IFREMER, an oceanographic institution in Brest, France. The collaboration continues to this day, resulting in an exchange of students and researchers between labs and countries. This collaboration has advanced our understanding of shellfish nutritional requirements in the hatchery and nursery, developed new methods to assess the immune status of shellfish, improved management practices to minimize the risk of spreading harmful algae through aquaculture, and deepened our understanding of interactions between harmful algae and shellfish.
In the new millennium, laboratory studies explored finfish aquaculture methods including rearing of black sea bass, scup, and tautog. Investigating potential causes of a mortality event in Long Island Sound, scientists found reduced survival times in American lobsters exposed to a combination of high temperature, low oxygen, and biogeochemicals. Milford scientists also studied how harmful algal blooms may affect shellfish. Researchers optimized phytoplankton productivity in the laboratory’s greenhouse by adjusting nutrient and light levels to support large volume algal production for feeding shellfish in a pilot hatchery. Studies by research ecologist Judy Li looked at how variability in coastal environments affects phytoplankton at the base of the food chain.
In late 2001, the R/V Shang Wheeler was retired from service and replaced with a former Coast Guard buoy tender. The new vessel was renamed the R/V Victor Loosanoff after Milford’s first laboratory director.
In 2004, a new collaboration began with colleagues from South Korea's National Institute of Fisheries Science. This association led to shared technology and research on how environmental conditions affect the survival and production of aquacultured oysters through the immune system. Dr. Anthony Calabrese retired as director at the beginning of 2004. Ron Goldberg served as acting director for three and a half years until Dr. Chris Brown became the fourth Milford Lab director in 2007.
In 2017, Dr. Gary Wikfors, trained by Ravenna Ukeles, became the fifth Milford Lab director.
Researchers identified a probiotic strain of bacteria that when added to oyster larvae cultures, stimulates the defense abilities of the oysters, enhancing survival. Other studies identified optimal site characteristics for offshore mussel farming. Selective breeding of blue mussels identified traits that enhance growth and survival.
Field studies on hydraulic shellfish cultivation found that seafloor organisms recovered quickly from short-term harvesting disturbance in Long Island Sound.
Field and laboratory studies of clams, mussels, and oysters found that filter-feeding shellfish removes excess nutrients and phytoplankton from the environment and improves water quality. Scientists at the lab began collaborative studies to measure the ecosystem services provided by shellfish aquaculture.
The laboratory’s GoPro Project recorded video to investigate how oyster aquaculture cages may provide fish habitat similar to natural structure. Environmental DNA (eDNA), traces of DNA left in the water column by fish, complemented video observations and helped identify fish associated with aquaculture gear not recorded by cameras.
2020s and Beyond
Looking toward the future, the Milford Laboratory is partnering with University of Rhode Island and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop the Northeast Oyster Breeding Center. The center will focus on selective breeding of oysters that are disease-resistant, resilient under climate change, and ideal for different oyster-growing regions. Milford scientists are installing the first Cawthron Ultra Density Larval System in North America to produce large numbers of genetically distinct families of shellfish. They are also installing two photobioreactors to grow large quantities of algae to feed those shellfish.
Researchers are developing new seawater systems to expose shellfish to multiple temperature and ocean acidification levels. This will help us to better understand and predict the effects of a changing climate. Ocean acidification research with shellfish is moving from lab to field trials, with multi-stressor and multigenerational studies approximating real world conditions.
The ongoing GoPro project compares fish size and condition on oyster aquaculture cages and natural boulder habitats at multiple shellfish farms and rock reefs in Long Island Sound. Collaborations using camera methods continue with partners at other institutions in several New England states. Research on the ecosystem services provided by shellfish aquaculture is expanding to include more collaborators and examine more benefits.
Laboratory scientists collaborate with public sector and private industry partners to commercialize probiotics as a feed supplement to improve shellfish production in hatcheries.