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scallops on the bottom
Scallops from the Milford Laboratory cover the bottom in a coastal inlet in Stonington, CT, after placement by the Milford Laboratory Dive Team. Credit: Mark Dixon, NEFSC/NOAA.
graph of scallop landings
Graph, from NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service commercial landing data, shows decline of bay scallop landings in recent decades. Credit: Joseph Choromanski, NEFSC/NOAA.
striped shells
Striped shells serve as visible markers, or phenotypes, for stock identification and in developing breeding lines with desired traits.  Credit: Joseph Choromanski, NEFSC/NOAA.
Members of the Milford Laboratory genetics research team measure bay scallops in the tank farm. Electronic calipers input data directly into the handheld computer. From left to right: Dorothy Jeffress, Joseph Choromanski, and Sheila Stiles.    Photo credit:  Dylan Redman, NEFSC/NOAA.
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December 2, 2014
Contact: Shelley Dawicki

Improving Domestic Seafood a Goal of Milford Laboratory's Shellfish Genetics Research Program

Techniques, technologies and products developed at the NEFSC’s Milford Laboratory are used worldwide by the aquaculture industry 

For nearly 100 years, federal researchers have been studying shellfish on the banks of Connecticut's Milford Harbor, quietly developing many of the techniques, technologies and products used worldwide by the aquaculture industry. Basic aquaculture techniques, known as the "Milford Method," became the standard for conditioning and spawning broodstock shellfish, for rearing their larvae and for artificial year-round culture of their microalgal foods.

Shellfish research, initially focused on oysters, by the Bureau of Fisheries (now NOAA Fisheries) began in Milford as early as 1919. The Milford Laboratory today is one of the few facilities in the U.S. that house genetic lines of cultured shellfish, bred and maintained over a number of generations.  These genetic lines are maintained for culture, enhancement, and restoration putrposes, as well as for distribution to industry, municipalities, schools, researchers, and other interested groups.

Geneticist Sheila Stiles and colleagues Joseph Choromanski and Dorothy Jeffress use breeding to improve the growth and survival characteristics of economically and ecologically valuable shellfish, such as scallops, clams, and oysters. They also work on population genetics for stock identification to assess and monitor stocks, and conduct environmental/habitat suitability and performance evaluations.

Populations of commercially important mollusks such as the bay scallop (Argopecten irradians) have exhibited marked reductions in abundance over the past several decades. Among the reasons for these declines are natural events, loss of eelgrass and other essential habitat, disease, over-harvesting, and impacts from human activities.

Researchers at the Milford Laboratory, part of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC), have developed culture technologies to stabilize scallop populations and production through stock enhancement, and to improve genetic traits for increased productivity.  Bay scallops with striped shells, for example, are used for stock identification and in developing breeding lines with desired traits.  These visible markers, known as phenotypes, help determine the success of transplanted populations in stock enhancement programs.  

“Bay scallops, once abundant from Massachusetts to Texas, have declined in numbers while imports have increased. We are trying to rebuild our native populations,” Stiles said. “Our ultimate goal is to contribute to increased commercial production, recreational harvesting, and reduced imports.”

“The bay scallop is a good model for genetic improvements for stock enhancement, population restoration, and in developing aquaculture sites,” said Stiles, who has also worked on selective breeding of oysters.  “Bay scallops grow very fast, and spawn millions of eggs that are fertilized externally. The scallops are hermaphroditic, meaning they have both male and female sex organs. The shells remain intact for aging and archiving, and the scallops can be cultured for generations. Bay scallops also have a short life span, roughly 20 months, and can reach maturity before one year of age.”

The Milford researchers focus on one of the three subspecies of the bay scallop, Argopecten irradians irradians, found from Massachusetts to New Jersey and known as the northern bay scallop. Another subspecies, Argopecten irradians concentricus, is found from New Jersey to the Gulf of Mexico, and the third (Argopecten irradians amplicostatus) is found in the Gulf of Mexico. Although the genetic research program currently focuses on the northern bay scallop, the Milford research has implications for scallops and other shellfish far beyond the Northeast.

To learn more about where recent scallop donations have been made, visit Donated Bay Scallops Can Have a Big Impact , and to learn how bay scallops are raised at the laboratory, visit Bay Scallop Culture and the Tank Farm.

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