VIMS will open a new oyster farming facility in 2022

The Virginia Institute of Marine Science plans to open a new oyster farming and research facility at its Gloucester Point campus by spring 2022.

Officials at VIMS, the environmental arm of William and Mary University, say this will take shellfish exploitation to a new level – in more ways than one.

Figuratively speaking, the new construction represents a monumental upgrade from the Spartan structure that has housed the hatchery since 1975. It will, for example, be heated and air conditioned, making conditions more comfortable for staff and extending the season. growth rate of bivalves reared in the laboratory. And its larger footprint will allow the facility to expand its oyster production capacity by 50 percent.

But maybe the main feature is its literal level, its elevation. The 22,000 square foot building will be perched 10 feet above sea level on a small rise above the shore of the York River. The current 6,500 square foot complex is nestled in a flood zone. The building is high enough to stay mostly dry, but the parking lot and surrounding grounds are easily flooded.

“You can compare it to a large garage,” said Jess Moss Small, associate director of the VIMS hatchery program. “It doesn’t have air conditioning. It’s a bit rudimentary.

The new facility, dubbed the Acuff Center for Aquaculture, will be large enough to accommodate a full set of research and production activities, Small said. This includes the institute’s Aquaculture Genetics and Breeding Technology Center, the country’s largest oyster breeding program.

The oysters here are not cultivated to restore the reefs at the bottom of the tributaries of the Chesapeake, as is the case with the Hatchery at the Horn Point Lab at the Center for Environmental Sciences at the University of Maryland, near Cambridge, in the Maryland. Instead, they are bred to provide broodstock. – think of them as starter oysters – for oyster farmers along the east coast (much like the Ferry Point Shellfish, which will soon open, Bay Bulletin Cheryl Costello took us inside in December).

About three-quarters of all oysters currently cultivated in aquaculture operations in Chesapeake Bay, Maryland and Virginia waters can trace their lineage back to the VIMS hatchery. The facility was created by legislative act of 1997 in response to the epidemics that had ravaged the already depleted oyster population throughout that decade.

In addition to broodstock, the facility is conducting research on behalf of the $ 16 million Virginia aquaculture industry. Many oyster farms are small and have neither the time nor the financial resources to test which practices or equipment work better than others, said Bill Walton, professor of marine science and coordinator of the VIMS Shellfish Program.

“This is really meant to be a place where the industry [members] can come in through that door and ask a question and get an answer, ”Walton said. The university is also working on obtaining a state permit to turn an acre of river bottom directly offshore into an oyster research farm.

For the first time, researchers will have their own labs within the campus hatchery to conduct experiments. To date, they have had to carve out space in their own buildings elsewhere on campus, said Walton, who was hired earlier this year after running the Auburn University Shellfish Lab in Alabama.

The changes should lead to better coordination between researchers and between VIMS and private oyster farmers, he added. “There is no Lego set for a farm. You invent it every time. There is the expertise of every farmer to make it work wherever they are,” Walton said.

Small said she hopes to expand the scope of the research beyond oysters, perhaps adding clams and seaweed to the mix.

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