Seed supply a challenge for North American oyster producers

Tom Walker
September 25, 2017
By Tom Walker
Lack of consistent and reliable supply of seed is a persistent problem in oyster aquaculture, says Bill Taylor of Taylor Shellfish
Lack of consistent and reliable supply of seed is a persistent problem in oyster aquaculture, says Bill Taylor of Taylor Shellfish

The seed side of the shellfish farming sector is challenging, says Bill Taylor, the president of Taylor Shellfish based in Washington state, and the largest shellfish grower in North America.

“I tell people all the time that there is a reason why a mature Pacific oyster female has 100 million eggs,” says Taylor, only partly joking. “It’s because you need a lot of eggs to come up with adequate survival. They have very high mortalities in their progeny and the reason they have been able to survive is because they are very fecund.”

One of the biggest issues for Taylor and indeed across the industry, is having a consistent and reliable source of seed. “I would say there is probably a shortage of oyster seed and it is a perpetual problem,” adds Taylor.

He describes it as a boom and bust cycle. “Some months are great for hatcheries and some are not great. The seed you thought you had dies and so what you thought was going to be a great year all of a sudden is not so great.” There is seed available Taylor elaborates, but it doesn’t always come at the times, or in the sizes, or the quantities, that an operation wants.

“We have a facility in Hawaii, facilities in Washington state, and our secondary nurseries in Northern California, Washington, and up in British Columbia and in every one of those sites there is a potential for losses,” he says.

“The hatchery larval level is usually where you have the most issues,” Taylor points out. “We know some basic things about larval culture at this stage of the game but I think we are a long way away from having a comprehensive idea as to everything that affects the larvae.”

“We definitely had problems with ocean acidification(OA) starting about 10 years ago,” he adds. “But that is only one component at the larval level.” He says the effects of temperature, water supply and salinity can be equally as challenging.

The unusually cold and late running winter in the Pacific Northwest this year delayed seed growth and crops by about two months Taylor says. “We’ve been farming shellfish for a long time and I don’t know that I have ever seen a year where there was this dramatic a delay of growth,” he maintains.

“We had poor results in our Quilcene hatchery here in Washington for oyster larvae and we suspect there is an algae coming in from our water source that has a toxin in it. We think that the algae is toxic to shellfish but we don’t know 100% if that is the problem.”

The key, he says, is to isolate the problem and work on it, which is what they did with OA. “Once we understood the problem (and that took us about a year and a half to realize) it took us about another year or so to come up with a solution. It’s frustrating, but you just dig in and work at it.”

“We know that OA affects the early larval stage,” he notes. “What we don’t know as much about, but are somewhat suspicious about, is that it may affect the setting stage and that early week or two post-set.

It’s harder to gather information on post-set Taylor points out. “It is a less controlled environment where we are doing the remote setting.”

In the hatchery they have sophisticated monitoring systems, but in a remote setting location where there is simply a tank, water heater and a pump they often don’t have the right equipment for monitoring.

“Again, it might be ocean acidification, but it might be a whole host of other issues that are affecting the setting.”

Taylor calls them ‘head scratchers.’ “There are some things we just don’t know the answers to and suspect it will be like that for some time.”

POMS and the risk of imported seed

Producers need seed but Bill Taylor is concerned about the risk of importing seed from outside the Pacific Northwest region.

“We have a high health program here in Washington, Hawaii and British Columbia so we have a pretty good idea of what our seed is like.” he explains. “Seed being brought in from other areas definitely needs to meet those standards. I am very concerned with the POMS, (Pacific Oyster Mortality Syndrome) or herpes oyster virus, because it has devastated both France and the New Zealand and Australian industries.

“Having seed bought in that is even close to a POMS area scares us a lot,” says Taylor. “We have talked to friends in Australia who have had to deal with it. They basically lose their whole crop. So it is of major concern to us. And it should be a concern for everybody in the industry. It will wipe out 99% of your younger stock.“

A lot of issues like marketing or predators are part of daily life, he comments. “They are certainly concerning, but at the end of the day nothing is static in the marine environment or in business; you are always adapting.”

“Those kinds of things I call incremental, we can deal with them, they aren’t catastrophic,” says Taylor. “But something like POMS definitely can be catastrophic.”

Taylor says he understands POMS is something hatcheries can breed resistance to fairly quickly. “But until you actually have the POMS virus, it is very difficult to know what broodstock might be resistant to it,” he points out. “Just because you have a very hardy oyster now doesn’t mean it’s resistant to POMS.”

But after three to five years without any income and trying to figure this out you can easily be out of business, warns Taylor. “Is it better to go without seed rather than to risk wiping out an industry? That is definitely our concern.”

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