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Restoring Natural Flat Oysters: Breeding in Captivity

03 April 2012

NEW ZEALAND - Zoë Hilton, PhD in Biological sciences aims to restore natural flat oyster stocks endangered over the decades by over fishing and pollution, disease and the effects of climate change in New Zealand.

Dr Hilton believes that by gaining a better understanding of the oyster parental environment and particularly the nutrition it provides, it will eventually be possible to recreate oysters in “captivity conditions”. This would allow for huge progress in captive oyster production, providing a more reliable source of young adults and allowing for selective breeding. Improving scientific general knowledge on oysters’ reproduction conditions will help put into place concrete initiatives to preserve marine biodiversity.

The flat oyster changes sex twice during a single season and also has exceptional parenting skills, with young oysters remaining inside the parents shell for most of their larval period. Although this unusable behaviour is advantageous for survival of the offspring in the wild, it presents a major challenge for the development of captive breeding methods.

The flat oyster has been a part of human diet for many centuries and continues to be regarded as a delicacy. However, over-fishing, combined with pollution, disease and the effects of climate change, are severely depleting natural flat oyster stocks around the globe. The challenge is to restore these wild oyster stocks while developing effective methods for their sustainable culture.

Most efforts to raise oysters in captivity rely on capturing young adults in the wild or waiting for the oyster parents to release their larvae. However, Dr Hilton believes that by gaining a better understanding of the oyster parental environment in particularly the nutrition it provides, it will eventually be possible to recreate these “nursery” conditions.

This would allow for huge progress in captive oyster production, providing a more reliable source of young adults and allowing for selective breeding.

Dr Hilton's research will provide economic and environmental benefits for all regions where flat oysters are famed and help conserve marine biodiversity.

Dr Hilton has been awarded a prestigious L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellowship.

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