Dr Jim Powell, CEO of the BC Centre for Aquatic Health Sciences in Campbell River, British Columbia, is developing the new tool.
Powell says growers often don't know if their oysters are contaminated until after the shellfish are harvested and packaged. He hopes the molecular detection tool will help prevent the spread of the illness and reduce the financial impact on growers if farms are closed due to norovirus, CBC News reported.
The co-op was formed two years ago by a group of classmates at the Wakulla Environmental Institute’s Oyster Aquaculture program. While working on separate aquaculture operations, an Australian equipment supplier suggested that they consider forming a cooperative. It didn’t take much convincing; the group voted Rob Olin as CEO and, later, as chairman of the board.
“We just cobbled a team of very diverse but incredibly talented professionals together for the business side,” says Olin. “I think we’ve attained our goal, which is to provide our members with everything they need — support in terms of accounting, legal, finance, operations, and advertising and marketing. So all they have to worry about is growing the perfect oyster. We now have a pretty substantial juggernaut.”
A for-profit co-op
The co-op provides seed, ongoing training, technology and a guaranteed place to sell their product, at a guaranteed price. They also help them make effective business plans.
A key difference with many co-ops, Olin notes, is Panacea’s for-profit nature. “We have to have investors to build the infrastructure we needed. We have to have enough money to buy the marina to house everything. We had to have an actual structure for a USDA loan, so in that way we’re different.”
As CEO and chairman, Olin is the decision-maker for a lot of day-to-day issues, however, larger questions regarding operations or philosophical changes are made with the 30 members of the co-op. The rancher members and the board of directors both meet once a month, in additional to an annual shareholders’ meeting.
“We’ve been able to enhance the rancher’s performance by way of the financial allowance and economies of scale that we bring to the table,” says Olin. “This is brand new. And like anything you do that’s brand new, it’s like walking into a hotel room when the lights are off. You stumble around and you find your way and you start to get a rhythm, then you start to elevate your performance, and from that elevation you move on to perfect performance. We’ve been able to cover so much ground as a team that we could never have gotten done as any one individual.”
The co-op also benefits from their location, next to Florida’s Spring Creek, the largest freshwater spring in the world. The pure spring water flows through and mixes with the saltwater, making up North America’s most diverse estuary. Olin says this allows for algae to thrive, which feeds the oysters and allows them to grow more quickly. The location also has two tides per day, which keeps nutrients moving in and out.
“When you’ve got oysters that rely on filtering more than 50 gallons of water per day, giving them the mega nutrients that our waters do, that allows them to grow faster than anywhere else on the planet.”
The farming operations are centered around the Apalachee Bay, which is part of the same estuary as the Apalachicola Bay. Farmers in the Apalachicola Bay harvested as much as 100 million oysters per year five years ago, but this has gone down to less than five million now. Olin hopes Panacea’s efforts to resurrect the oyster industry in Apalachee Bay will inspire farmers in the Apalachicola Bay.
“We’re putting the money, capital and effort back into building the infrastructure into Apalachee Bay,” says Olin. “Hopefully folks in Apalachicola Bay will see the magic that happens from this reintroduction of oysters – a totally different way to harvest and they’ll embrace it and start doing it over in their own bay and bring back that incredible potential that they once had.”
Panacea Oyster Co-op was one of the winners of the recent Fish 2.0 competition. The co-op’s ability to organize people and motivate them to commit to a shared endeavour has been a key factor behind its win, says Olin. Part of the appeal for many in the oyster farming industry is the independence and freedom it allows, but the co-op has convinced its members to give up some of that freedom for the greater good.
“It’s kind of like the old west,” says Olin. “You’ve got a bunch of independent water cowboys and cowgirls. They can make their own agenda for the day because they can adjust to the tide, wind, temperature and current. They don’t especially like to be collaborators or joiners. But here, because the old ways—commercial fishing and commercial oyster harvesting—were gone forever, they saw hope in this new technology, this new way of doing things. And they committed, even though it went totally against their natural instincts and they’re building something much bigger than themselves.”
The goal of the co-op is to establish their model as a prototype that can be adapted in different areas, either as satellite operations, or the co-op can provide its services as mentors and consultants. The important thing is to help the industry get firmly established.
Oysters are the ideal panacea not only to help supply the world’s growing need for food but also to keep the waters healthy, says Olin. “Oysters are essential for the survival of 3,000 aquatic species. They’re the original filters in the aquarium. Take the filters out, the aquarium dies. Put the filters back, the aquarium comes back to life. The best thing we can do is put filters back in the aquarium. The best way to do that is through aquaculture. The best way to make sure coastal communities see it is through this collective collaboration of a co-op.”
Probiotic OY15, a benign strain of Vibrio bacteria found in the oyster gut, was developed by microbiologist Diane Kapareiko and her team at NOAA Fisheries Milford Laboratory in Milford, Connecticut. Their goal was to help oyster hatchery managers boost the survival of Eastern Oyster (Crassostrea virginica) larvae and seed, and improve their defenses against bacteria.
It is a promising drug, but Tom Hashman, director of business development for Envera, said there are hurdles for getting the Food and Drug Administration to approve any probiotic, and a Vibrio-based bacteria might present additional hurdles.
While this particular Vibrio strain is confirmed benign and has shown it can be a “good” bacteria that boosts the oyster’s immune system and is safe for humans to handle, harmful Vibrio strains known to be human pathogens can cause serious illness and be fatal if an immune-compromised person ingests them or is infected through a cut in their skin while swimming in seawater.
Kapareiko says a partner is now being sought to produce the probiotic on a commercial scale. “If it were to go commercial, in a perfect world, if we had a company that said yes and went forward with commercializing it, it could possibly be another couple of years before it reaches the market,” she said.
“All production was spoken for, no farmer had any problem selling his shellfish. The biggest problem was producing enough to meet the demand,” says Darlene Winterburn, executive director of the BC Shellfish Growers Association (BCSGA).
Behind the industry’s struggle to meet demand is the regulatory process for assigning, modifying or expanding tenures for shellfish farms. The lengthy process limits industry expansion and it is a challenge that the association continues to work towards a resolution.
“The government came up with a new harmonized form this year, we’ll see how that works out,” says Winterburn. “We’re hopeful that it will be a positive change. We’re working with the government on addressing problems because we are limited in our ability to expand production. It also raises issues around the level of security that people have when investing in infrastructure to increase their production. But everybody is working together.”
2017 began with a significant challenge as the winter season saw an outbreak of norovirus. The British Columbia Medical Journal eventually attributed that outbreak to sewage-related contamination spread by ocean currents. Winterburn says the association worked with all levels of government to address the issue. A working group including the BCSGA, government and other stakeholders modified the Canadian Shellfish Sanitation Program to include site response measures, including temporary shellfish closures. The program is run by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
“With that, there has been a broader awareness of the importance of clean water to produce healthy animals, which are critical to a healthy people and a healthy planet,” says Winterburn. “Safety of our products is a top priority and, as an industry, we do everything we can to ensure that.”
The installation of a “Burke-o-Lator” water-quality monitoring device in Baynes Sound was another positive development for the industry. The device collects real-time ocean acidification data, enabling shellfish farmers to make informed decisions on when to grow larvae, when to set juvenile oysters out into the field, or when to draw the thousands of gallons of seawater they need to fill their tanks, for instance. The project is a joint effort between BCSGA and the Vancouver Island University. Live feed of data is open to the general public.
“This is going to provide really strong foundational data that pertains to environmental intelligence in Baynes Sound and it’s going to be key for all sorts of science,” says Winterburn. “It’s going to be quite invaluable as we’re looking at global issues as well as industry-specific issues.”
Another challenge that the association is addressing is debris from shellfish farms that strong winds cast out into the ocean. As earlier reported in Aquaculture North America, BCSGA led a “Turn It In Week” over the summer, where the association and partners set up large bins in strategic locations around the province, enabling farmers to easily dispose disused equipment and other refuse from their farms. BCSGA also collaborated with Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) to organize a beach clean up on Denman Island and other beaches in the area.
“We still have some work to do, but the vast majority of our farmers are quite responsible,” says Winterburn. “While they’re out doing their business, whether they’re on the farm or travelling back and forth, debris is an issue. They’ll stop and pick it up, they want to make sure that their beach is in a good state of care. As an association, we encourage our members to be good neighbours.”
Other issues that the industry faced in 2017 included feed availability, high cost of equipment and the need for more research on production. The association is addressing these through collaborations with the Hakai Institue and the Vancouver Island University.
“People are being really proactive to expand our capacity and to work through some of our issues,” says Winterburn. “We have no problem selling the product we have – there’s a shortage of product. What we need are ways to enhance our production and to do that we need to overcome these challenges. If we’re able to jump those hurdles, the potential is limitless.”
(This article was originally published in the Mar/Apr 2018 issue of Aquaculture North America.)
A report from the University of Connecticut, sales between 2007 and 2015 increased by nearly 100 percent, to a value of nearly $30 million in 2015. Connecticut Sea Grant, meanwhile, is conducting a more comprehensive study into the state’s industry, which will be completed by October this year.
Every five years, the University of Connecticut conducts an economic assessment of the entire agriculture industry, taking raw harvest data and estimating the multiplier effects on the economy. It also looks at direct sales, jobs and how that revenue plays out in the local and state economy.
“There’s been a gradual increase in oyster production,” says Tessa Getchis, aquaculture extension specialist and educator with the Connecticut Sea Grant and UConn Extension Program. “We had a disease event in the late’90s that wiped out most of our oysters. We saw a slow recovery at first and now a more rapid recovery.”
Getchis says increased diversification of operations and techniques have helped strengthen the industry. While a large portion of the industry continues to harvest seed from natural, public oyster beds, some use the remote setting technique of oyster seed production when natural seed supplies are not available consistently.
The state has also seen the industry diversify into container culture, where producers utilize flip bags or cages rather than traditional beds. These tend to be smaller operations, but still important to the growth and health of the industry.
“A volume of shellfish is still coming out of those natural beds, but the diversification is coming from these smaller operations that are located near shore and are using different types of gear to grow oysters,” says Getchis. “We’ve had a lot of interest in that, and it is poised to scale up.”
Connecticut Sea Grant’s study into the industry is tied to the Connecticut Shellfish Initiative, which aims to grow all of the shellfish sectors in the state. Getchis says that they are collecting information about jobs, harvesting areas, types of gear used and other information to create a baseline to inform the growth of the industry.
“It’s a plan that was developed by interested parties, a public process and an evolving process,” says Getchis. “Things that were important a year ago when we created the plan may not be as important now or may have already been addressed. There are new challenges that arise and new opportunities. It’s a living document and we’re working on the implementation of the plan.”
Why not Alaska? That’s a question that Alaska shellfish and seaweed growers are starting to ask themselves. The $6-billion seafood industry in the state produces more seafood than the rest of the US combined. Indeed, if Alaska were a country it would be in the top 10 for seafood production, yet almost all of that comes from the wild fishery.
Dynamic and informative industry seminars and speakers, business development networking events, and facility site tours are just some of the reasons to add this event to your busy schedule.
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GOAL 2018Tue Sep 25, 2018
25th Annual Cold Harvest Conference and Trade ShowWed Sep 26, 2018 @ 8:00am - 05:00pm
Pacific Coast Shellfish ConferenceSun Oct 14, 2018 @ 8:00am - 05:00pm
58th IFFO Annual ConferenceMon Oct 15, 2018 @ 8:00am - 05:00pm
Offshore Mariculture ConferenceWed Oct 17, 2018 @ 8:00am - 05:00pm
Laqua 18Tue Oct 23, 2018 @ 8:00am - 05:00pm