NEWPORT, Ore. - Oregon State University researchers think they can selectively breed oysters that will boast deeper shells and more uniform color - traits they believe will fetch a premium price in Oregon's growing half-shell oyster market.
In an era when a single bluefish tuna sold in Tokyo in 2001 for a record $172,000, it pays to keep an eye on consumer trends.
It isn't likely that oysters will ever reach that level of demand, acknowledges Ford Evans, a research associate at OSU's Hatfield Marine Science Center. But that doesn't mean that consumers won't pay more for seafood products with traits they really prefer.
"In the last few years, more of the West Coast oyster producers are shifting to the half-shell market," Evans said. "Traditionally, the industry has focused on shucked oyster meat. But with more and more restaurants and seafood markets emphasizing oysters served on the half-shell - either raw or cooked on the barbecue - the growers are responding to the demand.
"We think we can take the oyster to the next level," Evans added.
With its Molluscan Broodstock Program at the Hatfield Marine Science Center, OSU has been a significant contributor to the growth of the West Coast oyster industry. OSU researchers began cultivating families of Pacific oysters from different parts of the West Coast in the 1990s, and selectively breeding them in cohorts. They have been able to increase the yield of oyster weight by 41 percent in just two generations over unselected oysters.
The OSU program shares its broodstock with growers throughout the West Coast.
"Breeding programs are a long-term proposition," Evans said. "Plants take eight or nine generations to develop a new strain, and corn just went through its 100th year of selective breeding targeting oil content. In some cases, it's simple. The pigmentation in Labrador retriever dogs, for example, is simply inherited, involves only one or two genes and can be done in a generation.
"Oyster yield and growth rate are traits that are polygenic, involving many genes," he added. "It has taken time to breed those traits. But we think we can selectively breed for shell depth and color - and color in particular appears to be a highly heritable trait."
Color is important for a variety of reasons, Evans says, pointing out that consumers use visual cues in selecting - and paying for - food.
"It isn't just the color of the shell that is important," Evans said. "It is the mantle. Northwest oyster growers have a difficult time selling Pacific oysters on the East Coast because the pigments tend to leak out when cooked and give a gray color to oyster stew."
Evans and Chris Langdon, the director of the Molluscan Broodstock Program, believe that selecting for genetic traits is the key to producing a lighter, more uniform color in Pacific oysters. Genetics and the right growing environment will produce a deeper shell.
Just how much consumers are willing to pay for "designer oysters" is a question that needs to be answered, Evans said. The OSU researchers are seeking funding for a consumer study, as well as the work on the oysters.
"Oysters aren't for everyone," Evans said. "But there are people who love them and will pay for quality. How much they'll pay, and how much it costs to breed for those characteristics remains to be seen."
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