Breeding Resilient Oysters

March 2014

Cawthron scientists are breeding for virus resistant oysters

A collaborative research programme at Cawthron Aquaculture Centre, Nelson, to breed oysters resilient to the herpes virus that three years ago devastated New Zealand’s Pacific oyster industry is starting to deliver promising results.

In 2010 the ostreid herpes (OsHV-1) virus caused up to 90% mortality in the wild spat which Pacific oyster farmers rely upon to restock their aquaculture farms. The crisis led to job losses, factory closures and saw an overall drop in production of 50 to 60%, with some individual farmers hit significantly harder.

Cawthron Institute was already collaborating with industry on a small-scale Pacific oyster selective breeding programme that had been underway for 10 years. This became much bigger and more urgent because, with not many oysters around, researchers needed to not only secure the good quality traits that programme had been focused on, but include survival as well. With government assistance the research programme was rearranged to provide help to oyster producers in their crisis. Within six months of becoming aware of the virus, and working with industry, Cawthron set up new trials and re-focused its breeding strategy towards breeding for virus resistance. It had some government research money in place and could do a breeding run straight away.

Cawthron Aquaculture Park is a national centre of excellence for shellfish aquaculture research, development and production, supported by industry and underpinned by scientific research. This world-class facility is home to seafood companies, education and training programmes, and New Zealand’s largest mussel and oyster hatchery operations. It has a new centre that was officially opened in 2011 but the park itself has been operating since the early 1990s. The land on which the 20ha park is located is low lying, below the spring high water mark, and protected by the Nelson Boulder Bank. The quality of the adjacent seawater is excellent and the climate is mild, with over 2000 sunshine hours per year, making it ideal for algae production. The park hosts aquaculture industry firms, teaching labs operated by the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology, and Cawthron’s own aquaculture and biotechnology research group. The park is managed by Cawthron Institute Aquaculture Manager Dr Jacquie Reed and a team with world-class research expertise.

Research and farm trials over the past three years have indicated oyster herpes resilience. A combination of genetic improvement through breeding, and improved farm husbandry – such as by growing oysters to a larger size and age before exposure to the virus – makes a big difference in terms of oyster survivorship and a return to viable production.

Cawthron’s shellfish team believes that new breeding strategies will help achieve genetic gains in a relatively short time.

Oyster families have been identified with a very high survival rate when exposed to the oyster virus at juvenile stage.

Cawthron Institute Cultured Shellfish Programme Leader Nick King said these resilient families will be bred with oysters from the pre-existing breeding programmes that had been selected for desirable attributes. The resulting seed is sent to farmers to see how it performs under challenge from the virus. Now the best of these are coming back to the hatchery so that they can be commercialized.

“When the virus hit we all worked together to address this problem,” said King. “We could not have got this far without the huge support we have received from our industry partners, in particular Pacific Marine Farms – a subsidiary of Aotearoa Fisheries Limited, and Te Matuku Bay Oysters, who managed the bulk of the on-farm trials. It is truly a joint effort.”

Pacific Marine Farms produces about one-quarter of the oyster spat used by farmers around the country.