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Study Seeks to Bred Better Oyster

August 22, 2003

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) _ Researchers who’ve created a fast-growing oyster strain have planted 180,000 juvenile oysters in rivers and waterways to see if they’re capable of giving Maine oyster farmers an advantage.

Nine oyster growers from the Cousins River in Freeport to Cutler Harbor in Washington County have planted the oysters that scientists say are capable of growing to market size in just two years.

Fast-growing, disease-resistant oysters would provide an advantage over typical Maine-grown oysters that take three to four years to reach market size because the cold water sends them into hibernation.

``It could be a clear boon for the industry,″ said Andrew Fisk, aquaculture coordinator for the Maine Department of Marine Resources. ``We are watching with interest.″

Two years ago, the Maine Aquaculture Innovation Center, a state-funded agency based in Orono, began investigating funding for a project that could address Maine oyster growers’ chief concern _ development of a faster-growing, disease-resistant oyster.

Eastern oysters are the second-largest aquaculture segment in the Northeast, according to the center’s executive director, Michael Hastings.

In 2002, the Department of Marine Resources reported Maine oyster sales of 271,000 pounds valued at $560,122. The expansion of the industry has been difficult because Maine’s cold water temperatures slow growth.

Last year, Hastings pulled together nearly $300,000 in grants, industry donations and in-kind services from the University of Maine to conduct an oyster broodstock improvement project.

The project’s goal will be to assess the survival and growth rates of a selectively bred oyster during the next three years, Hastings said.

Oysters have always grown well on the Damariscotta River, but researchers also wanted to know if this super oyster could thrive on waterways such as the Cousins, Sheepscot, St. George, Harrington and Bagaduce rivers.

Growers such as Chris Davis of Waldoboro agreed to participate in the project.

``If we can bring oysters to market faster, then we should be able to improve the bottom line,″ said Davis, who also owns Pemaquid Oyster of Damariscotta.

Davis, who holds a doctorate in shellfish genetics, says the new strain of oysters has not been genetically altered, but instead was selectively bred. In other words, researchers chose the parents of the new strain based on characteristics that they liked.

``We’re doing the same thing that people have done with chicken or cattle for the last 5,000 years,″ Davis said.

Fisk says the stakes are high. An individual oyster can sell for as much as 65 cents. A typical two-acre farm in Maine can hold ``many thousands of oysters,″ according to Fisk.

``Oysters are a lot like wine. Each oyster has a particular bouquet that is based on the type of plankton they ate and the salinity of the water,″ Fisk said. ``To grow an oyster is a difficult thing.″

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