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Oysters; food for thought or thought for food?

I have an unfounded abhorrence of them, my grandfather had an active devotion to them (to the frustration of the local anti-poaching authorities whom he constantly outwitted), people in Galway will lavishly indulge themselves with them between the 24th and the 27th of September, they have contracted herpes and been subsequently dying in famine-esque numbers in Irish bays this summer and with the help of an Irish born scientist, they may go some way to answering the world’s nutritional needs in the trying global times ahead.

The Galway Oyster Festival (more information here), may be undermined in years to come if    oysters, once a rare delight for mis-guided aphrodisiac seekers and West of Ireland fishermen  who knew good hiding places in the shallow bays of Mayo, achieve the same kind of  productivity and penetration in global diets as staple mass produced foods such as corn.

Irish born and raised Donal Manahan is the director of The Wrigley Institute for Environmental studies at The University of Southern California (USC) where a concept know as ‘hybrid vigor’ is driving researchers to explore the possibilities of mass producing bigger and faster growing oysters.

Hybrid vigor is the term referring to the process of inbreeding a species, to produce a small weak offspring, but then crossing that weak offspring with another similarly inbred strain to remarkably produce a specimen which is bigger and stronger than its original grandparent stock. It worked for corn, but as Manahan points out that if rainfall patterns change as some predict, the corn producing regions of the world such as the American Midwest may not be so productive in the future. In their outdoor seawater nurseries, USC researchers are employing this technique to grow oysters twice as fast and twice as big, tempting us in Ireland to consider the further potential of our small but emergent aquaculture industry.

Manahan predicts that oysters could be the next great food, and what a food they would be. The nutritional capacity of an oyster, which is low in calories is quite impressive and reads like a nutritionist’s waiting room wallchart. Oyster farming is also more pleasing to those who are concerned with the ecosystem impacts of aquaculture. Unlike their salmon farm counterparts which attract constant criticism in Ireland and further afield for their large energy input requirements and subsequent waste output, oyster farms tend to efficiently mop up excess nutrients in the system and not make a mess.

That does not mean all is well with the state of oyster aquaculture in Ireland at present. The Irish Marine Institute probably wish they had the resources to harness the likes of Dr. Manahan’s home-grown expertise, but instead are not renewing contracts like many other national institutes in Ireland. This summer, oyster farming in Ireland took a blow with losses of between 15 and 75 % of stocks reported (read more here), the cause appearing to be a herpes virus carried in seed stock which had been sourced in France and the UK.

Will Irish marine scientists be making significant contributions to global marine questions of resource utilisation in the future? Probably. More importantly, will they be doing it in Ireland?

Reference: University of Southern California (2009, August 3). Consider The Oyster (and Ocean Farming).ScienceDaily. from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/06/090619192607.htm

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