NEWPORT - Some of the first results are starting to come in from a USDA-funded research program to improve the size, yield and disease resistance of oysters grown commercially in the Pacific Northwest, and they show that the first generation of oysters from "selected" broodstock have a yield 9.5 percent higher than those from wild stocks.

Similar gains in yield are expected from the next generation of oysters, experts say.

This is a significant advance for the West Coast oyster industry that has an annual value of $68 million, say researchers at Oregon State University, and a credit to the sustained support of private industry and funding from the federal government for this Molluscan Broodstock Program which began in 1995.

The Pacific Northwest congressional delegations, with the special support of U.S. Rep. Darlene Hooley, recently announced funding totaling $692,000 for both the Molluscan Broodstock Program at OSU and a collaborating USDA-Agricultural Research Service shellfish geneticist position at OSU's Hatfield Marine Science Center.

"We're finally getting the support we need to make the same kind of significant advances in oyster breeding that have been achieved for other agriculture commodities," said Chris Langdon, a professor at the Hatfield Marine Science Center. "The oyster industry is excited about the advances and we are clearly making progress towards our goals."

The demand for the new generation of selected broodstock oysters has outstripped supply, Langdon said.

The expansion of research should speed progress on studies that can help the West Coast industry be more competitive and profitable, both nationally and internationally, experts say. Globally, oysters are one of the largest and most economically important aquaculture species, and the Pacific oyster is the most commonly cultured oyster species in the world, making up over 90 percent of all oysters produced.

Improved broodstock will help make the West Coast industry more competitive in the global market place, Langdon said. There may also be opportunities to develop improved shellfish seed that can be sold to international markets, he said, such as in Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Korea and China.

Unlike progress that has been made for 150 years in so many other areas of crop and animal agriculture, the oyster industry has never had a coordinated, long-term breeding program to select oysters with optimum characteristics, such as size, shell shape, shell color, fast growth, long shelf life, or resistance to summer mortality. Surveys have been carried out among members of the West Coast industry to identify what growers would consider the perfect oyster. So far, it doesn't exist.

A combined initiative of the West Coast's private aquaculture industry, political leaders and university researchers set out to change that a few years ago. Now, such techniques as DNA fingerprinting are being applied by OSU researchers to aid in oyster selection and to verify the pedigree of individual oysters. Careful and controlled breeding strategies are also being developed to improve broodstock. Based on initial results, offspring from selected top-performing broodstock families have significantly greater yields, on average, compared with those from traditional, non-selected stocks.

Oregon has become a center for oyster research on the West Coast even though the commercial industry is larger in Washington, which has some prime oyster growing areas in Willapa Bay and Puget Sound. There should be room for significant expansion of Oregon's industry and the employment associated with that, Langdon said, although one key obstacle is the increase in coastal population and associated pollution, resulting in loss of productive waters.

Long-term research support from the federal government and oyster industry will be essential to the viability and growth of the West Coast oyster industry, Langdon said. Selective breeding is a slow and sometimes uncertain process, and a sustained commitment is necessary for good progress.

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Chris Langdon, 541-867-0231