Grant Aims to Accelerate Sustainable Aquaculture Farming in Virginia

To help put aquaculture farming on par with its land-based counterparts, the Virginia Seafood Agricultural Research and Extension Center received a $750,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The grant will allow researchers at the seafood AREC to analyze the economics of incorporating smart farming technologies into shellfish aquaculture. Sustainable farming methods for Virginia oyster, mussel and scallop growers will incorporate technologies like robotics, automation, computer sensing and imaging, and artificial intelligence.

Dr. Jonathan van Senten, an aquaculture extension specialist and assistant professor in Virginia Tech’s Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, will collaborate with the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science, University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Louisiana State University, Pacific Shellfish Institute and the Fraunhofer USA Center for Experimental Software Engineering. Collectively, they will analyze the economic viability of the technologies developed by the research team.

“There hasn’t been such a cohesive effort to address this set of challenges that exist in aquaculture before,” van Senten said. “The exciting part of this, for me, is this new approach to solving some of these decades-old problems through new technologies.”

Kyle Sturgis, chairman of the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation Aquaculture Advisory Committee, said whenever an AREC gets funding to help an agriculture sector, it’s beneficial. “Technology has become such an important part of our society, and we have seen so many advancements in land-based agriculture that sometimes I feel the aquaculture industry is lagging behind.

“But with this grant and the resulting research, this can move aquaculture in a direction where more producers can incorporate technology into their operations.”

Van Senten said the current state of seafood markets calls for automation and more precise handling of inventory and stock on aquaculture farms. “This technology could provide a way to maximize inventory to ensure that farmers are getting 100% of the market-ready product and not harvesting anything that is not ready to be sold.”

The first step is for the research group to take successful models and technologies and adapt them to meet the harsh aquatic environments such as corrosive saltwater, currents, storms and shellfish predators. Van Senten will analyze the economic viability of these new technologies for shellfish farmers in the Chesapeake Bay.

Heather Lusk, vice president of H.M. Terry Co. LLC, said oysters are hand-counted on her family’s shellfish farm on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, and an automated system would help the operation reduce labor costs and be more cost-effective. Lusk, who also sits on the boards of the Virginia Aquaculture Advisory Board and the Shellfish Growers of Virginia, added that the USDA-funded research will benefit many of Virginia’s aquaculture producers.

In addition to economic benefits, van Senten expects environmental benefits as well. For example, he said dredging, a current harvesting processes for shellfish, relies on casting a net or cage and dragging it across the bottom of a body of water, catching buried shellfish. This process could be harmful for the health of shellfish habitats.

The technology to be developed by this grant, such as underwater drone monitoring, could allow for targeted harvests and improved success rates that can help protect underwater ecosystems.

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