The case for a research hatchery

Recently, VIMS forwarded their annual capital request to Richmond, which included a general description of a new shellfish hatchery.  In short, ABC has grown out of the facilities it has now.  What do we have now?  The building that houses the diploid breeding program in the Gloucester Point boat basin at VIMS was built nearly four decades ago and was originally designed as a production facility for planting large numbers of seed oysters in Chesapeake Bay.  It is crumbling.  It is medieval.

What do we need?  Oyster breeding requires production of numerous small groups of genetically distinct crosses.  (See June 1, 2013 blog, “Spawning Season at Gloucester Point”).  This contrasts to how a commercial hatchery operates – or for that matter, the original purpose of our current hatchery building.  Commercial hatcheries deal in very large groups of only a few different types.  Oyster breeding just requires a lot of space.

We need space that is designed for the meticulous care of up to 200 larval tanks simultaneously; we need space for expansion of algal cultures during our busiest times; we need both batch and continuous algal systems; we need dedicated space for setting larvae – as many containers for seed as we have larvae, in the example above, 200; we need state of the art water filtration capabilities to insulate us from the ever changing nature of Chesapeake Bay water; we need temperature control of water, both for tempering incoming water and capturing heat from the outflow via heat exchangers so that we can start our season earlier; and, we need conditioned air (i.e., control of air temperature in certain rooms) to keep larval cultures optimal, not to mention people, who now work in completely un-tempered summer heat.  One of the ridiculous examples of the lack of this latter capability has been the need to make a run to the ice machine in August to chill water around the larval tanks when air temperature surpasses the maximum.  The needs listed above – in no way complete – are just to optimize our current program.

What about future needs?  Unanticipated research issues?  What about serving as a crucible of future hatchery advancements, such as, high density larval culture, nutritional studies, advanced micro-nursery systems, or research on important life stages of larvae, such as, metamorphosis?  Our current facilities are so jam-packed with current programmatic needs, we are utterly incapable of asking questions like these.  For example, a few years ago, Stephanie Reiner, then a Master’s student with ABC, did research on high density larval culture.  We had to set the project up in a commercial hatchery nearby for lack of space and appropriate infrastructure at Gloucester Point.

What is completely ironic is that neighboring states – Maryland, North Carolina, New Jersey – have state-of-the-art facilities but their commercial aquaculture lags far behind what is going on in Virginia.

ABC is currently seeking support from anyone and everyone who sees the value that ABC has, and can in the future, provide the Commonwealth and specifically the dynamic, still expanding industry.  With State financial support, help in planning the hatchery from industry advisors, and a shrewd breeding strategy, the investment in a new R&D hatchery can pay off in major ways, in ways that the investment in ABC in 1997 has to date.  Support your local hatchery initiative.  The Bay will thank you.