From research to problem solving

As the need for food and nutrients for the expanding global population continues to rise, aquaculture has an increasingly important role in helping to meet that demand. In Maine, the aquaculture industry is growing, but it faces challenges in its efforts to create a sustainable and profitable seafood market. Obstacles to growth and productivity include determining optimal sites, identifying marketable products, and controlling disease. In May, Bigelow Laboratory hosted a workshop with leaders in the aquaculture industry to introduce the Joint Industry Partnership Initiative. The central principle of the initiative is that, through collaboration, Bigelow Laboratory scientists and commercial partners can generate research-based solutions that can resolve many of the issues faced by the aquaculture industry, ultimately benefiting both parties.

Dr. Nichole Price’s research illustrates yet another example of how Bigelow Laboratory science has the potential to enhance Maine’s aquaculture industry. Price is studying the distribution of seaweeds in the Gulf of Maine, which creates crucial nursery habitat and food resources for fish and lobsters. She has discovered that increased carbon dioxide in the Gulf is leading to greater productivity among large, edible seaweeds. Since commercial shellfish like mussels, oysters and clams are negatively impacted by increasing acidity, Price is exploring whether commercially farming edible seaweeds near mussel, oyster, and clam beds may help moderate the effects of ocean acidification locally. If this proves to be an effective solution, it could be a boon to commercial shellfish farms in Maine and elsewhere.

As an extension of these efforts to bolster the state’s aquaculture industry, Bigelow Laboratory initiated an effort to organize and form a marine algal cluster to help the Maine algal industry realize its potential and take advantage of a growing sea vegetable market. The cluster initiative is supported by a planning grant from the Maine Technology Institute, and encompasses both macroalgae (e.g. sea vegetables) and microalgae. Bigelow Laboratory is working closely with a diversity of partners from around the State on this initiative, all of whom are involved in sea vegetable wild-harvest, aquaculture, and processing.

The cluster has worked during the past year to come up with a roadmap to develop and promote a Maine Algae brand, identify and resolve potential bottlenecks to forward progress, and raise public awareness about the multiple beneficial uses of algae. The ultimate goal is to help the sea vegetable industry (macroalgae) develop new and innovative products, expand into new markets, and improve production and processing techniques. Similarly, goals for the microalgae industry are to develop new bioactive derivative products such as pharmaceuticals and nutritional supplements, support aquaculture sustainability through improved shellfish and finfish feeds, and contribute to research on green fuel alternatives. The algal cluster group is in the process of completing an implementation plan for growing this important industry sector in Maine.

Bigelow Laboratory scientists are also involved in several projects to study the threat of pathogens to Maine’s oyster aquaculture. Tiny pathogens exist in oysters that represent a serious threat to oyster aquaculture in lost production, as well as a potential threat to those who consume raw oysters. Drs.José Antonio Fernández Robledo, Pete Countway, and Nick Recordare conducting fieldwork to determine the location, prevalence, and abundance of oyster pathogens throughout Maine. Their research will assess the risk posed by waterborne human pathogens, as well.

One parasite that Dr. José Antonio Fernández Robledo studies – Perkinsus marinus, which is responsible for “dermo” disease – weakens the immune system of oysters, making them up to three times more susceptible to invasion by other parasites. Perkinsus has caused large oyster casualties up and down the eastern coast of the United States, and has resulted in a large net loss in the oyster industry. In collaboration,Dr. Joaquín Martínez Martínez is seeking to identify and isolate viruses that affect the oyster parasite Perkinsus, which is not toxic to humans. Martínez Martínez is investigating whether viruses either cause Perkinsus to become more resilient and virulent or if viruses can kill Perkinsus, providing a potential means to control its spread. Knowing more about how viruses impact the parasite Perkinsus may provide an innovative solution for how to protect oysters from this parasite.

By developing such creative solutions to applied problems, Bigelow Laboratory scientists are paving the way for an economically prosperous and environmentally sustainable aquaculture industry in Maine.

To learn more about how Bigelow Laboratory is working to advance seafood security and ocean health,click here.