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At Auburn University, research fuels the engines of innovation.  Our entrepreneurial spirit drives discovery to the marketplace, improving quality of life at home and around the world.

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The Auburn University Shellfish Lab: Putting Science to Work along the Northern Gulf Coast

The Eastern oyster industry in the United States produces 23 million pounds of oysters annually valued at $82.5 M.  The Gulf of Mexico typically accounts for 89% of harvest by volume, but represents only 73% of the total dollar value.  Experts at the Auburn University Shellfish Lab in Mobile County, Alabama are working to change that.

Despite the dramatic growth of oyster farming across the US, in the Gulf of Mexico region, oysters are only farmed extensively on bottom leases with the vast majority of production concentrated in Louisiana. Subject to environmental variability, the supply and quality of extensively farmed oysters varies widely. In contrast, oyster farmers using intensive, off-bottom methods focus on producing a steady supply of consistently premium oysters for the lucrative half shell niche market.

Off-bottom oyster farming, where watermen raise hatchery-reared oyster ‘seed’ in various containers, is an opportunity for a viable near-shore domestic aquaculture industry that can provide a large economic boon to the coastal communities along the Northern Gulf, to the producers as well as to the local  supporting industries, can improve the environment, and can preserve working waterfronts. While substantial industries (over $100 million/year respectively) have been established on the US East and West coasts, a number of hurdles kept this industry from being established along the Gulf coast, including Alabama.

Beginning in 2009, Auburn University’s Marine Extension and Research Center and Auburn University Shellfish Lab’s Dr. Bill Walton, partnered with Alabama Cooperative Extension System and Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, began to tackle the hurdles to this industry in Alabama, conducting research to identify the most cost-effective methods of raising oysters best suited to the region. Auburn partnered with a number of industry members to share the results and identify research priorities moving forward. This led to additional research into culture methods, marketing aspects, permitting questions and food safety. In addition, Auburn University permitted a 32-acre oyster farm ‘business park’ and conducted a hands-on training program where participants established commercial oyster farms within this park.

Building off this one business park, nine new commercial oyster farms have been established in Alabama, with a 2014 harvest value exceeding $500,000, which is expected to exceed $1 million in 2015, increasing incomes and generating local jobs.

To learn more, check out a couple of short but really great videos: Redefining Gulf Oysters and For the Love of Oysters: Alabama’s Oyster Farmers.

Articles about these efforts can also be found in Auburn Speaks: On Food Systems, Auburn Speaks: On Water, and Auburn Speaks: The Oil Spill of 2010 available from the Auburn Speaks Store.

Auburn University receives national recognition for fostering economic growth, prosperity and innovation

One of the nation’s top higher education associations today recognized Auburn University for leadership in fostering economic growth, prosperity and innovation.

The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities named Auburn an Innovation and Economic Prosperity University, a designation that recognizes the university’s strong commitment to economic engagement and its work with public and private sector partners in Alabama and the region.

“Auburn is in the business of helping people achieve their hopes and dreams, and that’s why we’re committed to working alongside entrepreneurs, industry leaders and government officials as an engine of economic opportunity,” Auburn University President Jay Gogue said.

The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, or APLU, is a research, policy and advocacy organization dedicated to strengthening and advancing the work of public universities in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

Auburn began the application process for the Innovation and Economic Prosperity University designation in September and engaged in an extensive self-study which included, among other things, surveys and focus groups with stakeholders from around the state of Alabama. The study found Auburn had a $5.1 billion economic impact on the state economy in 2014 and supports 23,600 jobs, in addition to direct employment.

“We are establishing partnerships and providing support to business and industry with an eye toward spurring growth,” said John Mason, Auburn University vice president for research and economic development. “These relationships benefit our students with learning experiences, while companies benefit from Auburn’s world-class faculty and research.”

A highlight is the university’s engagement with GE Aviation to help bring high-volume additive manufacturing to the GE facility in the city of Auburn, where it will manufacture jet engine fuel nozzles. The facility will be the first of its kind to mass produce additive components for the jet propulsion industry. The university will collaborate on training and industrializing processes as well as developing a curriculum for engineers interested in industrialized additive manufacturing.

Auburn is also home to a 13,000-square-foot Radio Frequency Identification, or RFID, Lab focusing on the business and technical implementation of RFID and other new technologies in retail, supply chain management and manufacturing. It is a unique private and academic partnership between major manufacturers and retailers, technology vendors, standards organizations as well as top faculty and researchers from many disciplines.

Auburn is one of 18 universities named in APLU’s third annual class of Innovation and Economic Prosperity Universities and is the only university named in the state of Alabama. Joining Auburn this year are Binghamton University; Clemson University; East Carolina University; Mississippi State University; New Jersey Institute of Technology; New Mexico State University; Ohio University; Southern Illinois University; University of Arizona; University of Kansas; University of Louisville; University of Maryland; University of Nebraska-Lincoln; University of New Mexico; University of South Florida; Utah State University; and Western University.

With a membership of 238 public research universities, land-grant institutions, state university systems and affiliated organizations, APLU’s agenda is built on the three pillars of increasing degree completion and academic success, advancing scientific research and expanding engagement.

To learn more, visit www.auburn.edu/externalengagement

Cashing in on Oyster Renaissance: Branding Premium Gulf Oysters

This image has been enhanced with augmented reality.  To view, download TigerView by Auburn University to your smartphone or tablet.  Open the app and use the "view now" feature to scan this image and enjoy the story behind the headline.

This image has been enhanced with augmented reality. To view, download TigerView by Auburn University to your smartphone or tablet. Open the app and use the “view now” feature to scan this image and enjoy the story behind the headline.

In December 2012, diners at the Lakewood Country Club in Point Clear, Alabama, enjoyed a complimentary feast of oysters provided by researchers Dan Petrolia of Mississippi State University (MSU) and Bill Walton of Auburn University. The oysters came from all over the country—some wild, some farmed, some generic, some branded—with a wide range of price points. Diners were asked to indicate which oysters they would be most and least likely to purchase if they were in a restaurant considering these oysters at these prices. The goal of this ongoing Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant-funded study is to determine whether diners in the southeastern United States and around the country will pay a premium for branded high-quality Gulf oysters.

“Imagine you’re going to go buy a car,” Petrolia says. “You have your own personal top five things you’re going to look for—the color, the gas mileage, the whatever. We are trying to identify the top four or five things people look for in an oyster —hence, price, the name or brand, taste, what they look like.”

The Eastern oyster, Crassostrea virginica, native to the Gulf and East coasts, tends to come from one of three sources. Natural oysters grow and reproduce in the wild with little to no human intervention and are harvested by commercial fishermen and lease holders that manage private grounds. The vast majority of natural oysters come from the Gulf of Mexico. Lumped together as “Gulf oysters,” they bring the lowest price wholesale. In contrast, farmed oysters are cultivated in baskets in private waters and typically branded with a name that generates a premium price in restaurants around the country. Similarly, managed wild oysters can be harvested from a specific geographical area (and are often hand-selected), such as Galveston Bay in Texas or Apalachicola Bay in Florida, where the oysters are also branded for name recognition. They too fetch a higher price than generic Gulf oysters.

The question, however, is whether consumers, both regionally and in other parts of the country, are willing to pay for farmed and/or branded oysters from the Gulf. “One hypothesis is that people like a nice, pretty, uniform set of oysters in front of them,” Petrolia says. “The cultivated oysters tend to all be roughly the same size and shape, while the wild-caught can vary widely in appearance.”

Walton notes that there has been an “oyster renaissance” in the United States, and that oysters marketed along the Atlantic Coast sell under regional names such as Wellfleets (from Cape Cod), Blue Points (Long Island), Chincoteagues (Virginia), and Beausoleils (New Brunswick). Southern oysters, however, have generally been sold as generic oysters. Rowan Jacobsen, author of A Geography of Oysters: The Connoisseur’s Guide to Oyster Eating in North America, says this is “indicative of a region that pays less attention to the nuances of different raw oysters than to their culinary possibilities.”

The only larger scale exception on the Gulf coast is Apalachicola oysters, which comprise the bulk of Florida’s oyster harvest. Although there is no clear evidence that they sell at a premium, it is evident that a market has developed for these branded oysters. Petrolia and Walton wanted to find out if there is a market for similarly branded oysters from other parts of the Gulf of Mexico.

At the Point Clear taste test, and a similar event in Houston in February 2013, participants were served different combinations of oysters in four rounds. The first two rounds were blind. They were given a price point, but nothing else. The generic Gulf oysters at a significantly lower cost fared very well in the blind test, getting 41 percent of the vote based on taste and price. In the final two rounds, tasters were told the brand or point of origin of the oysters. Here, voters showed a clear geographical preference: The four branded oysters from Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida together received 45 percent of the vote, while voters shied away from the East Coast brands when they were aware of the oysters’ origin.

After the taste test portion of the event, diners were given a questionnaire regarding their feelings on issues such as price point, brand, and geographical origin. The ultimate goal is to develop an online questionnaire to survey a wide cross-section of national consumers regarding their preferences when selecting oysters at restaurants. Petrolia and Walton have contracted with a marketing company to recruit a representative sample of consumers of raw oysters from the five Gulf states, as well as from major metropolitan cities such as Chicago and New York, to determine the factors, including perceptions of risk, that go into oyster choice nationally. The two have created an advisory board of industry professionals to help design the survey with the intent of being able to hand the professionals helpful, real-world data when the project is complete.

“The results of the survey will help us tailor our production characteristics and marketing techniques to enable us the best chance of penetrating and competing in many high-value markets currently unavailable to Gulf oyster products,” notes Chris Nelson, vice president of Alabama’s Bon Secour Fisheries. “An attribute as simple as ‘saltiness’ may be of much greater importance than we realize at this point, and ‘Gulf’ vs. ‘Pepper Grove’ may market completely differently.”

Walton, a fisheries specialist, has spent years studying the science of oyster aquaculture. He thinks that the Gulf Coast fisheries industry is missing out on a potential economic driver by not cultivating and branding oysters in addition to harvesting what’s already there. He believes a market exists for higher-price-point “boutique” Gulf oysters not only in the region but in larger cities around the nation. He speculates the oysters will do well in cities like Boston and Chicago, and plans to hold a similar restaurant event in Chicago to test his theory.

“We already know that there are consumers who are willing to pay a higher price for a premium oyster,” Walton says, adding that Gulf oysters have an advantage in the winter months because the oysters harvested out of the Northeast can be relatively “skinny” due to a lack of food in the water regionally. “The oysters out of the Gulf are fat, plump—you get a lot of oyster in the shell. That looks really good in comparison to some of the oysters coming out of the more northern climates. On a raw bar in the colder months, our product really stands out.”

Walton’s expertise, combined with that of Petrolia, an agricultural economist at MSU, will go toward defining the attributes that oyster consumers look for when purchasing in general, along with identifying specific regional and national interest in branded Gulf oysters. This information will be useful to everyone, from those who harvest wild oysters or cultivate their own to distributors to the restaurant industry itself, but particularly to industry professionals in the Gulf states who might be missing out on an economic opportunity.

By Bill Walton and Dan Petrolia

Alabama Oyster Social a celebration of state’s oyster industry and Auburn research

oyster research

“This event was a collaborative effort to support those who make their living from the Gulf and the Auburn researchers who help them succeed.”

Chef David Bancroft is tireless in his efforts to find the best ingredients for the fresh, new interpretations of Southern classics he cooks up in his kitchen at Acre restaurant in Auburn. He’s so committed to sourcing those ingredients as close to his kitchen as possible that he grows as many as he can on the one-acre parcel the restaurant occupies on Glenn Avenue. However, in a complex, modern food system, it can sometimes be difficult to access, say, Alabama seafood, just in time to introduce a special dish to his restaurant’s hip, ever-evolving menu.

This is a lesson he learned the hard way last winter when he decided to throw a party in honor of the lowly oyster. Hoping to take advantage of the peak in oyster flavor and texture that occurs when Alabama’s coastal waters cool down in winter, and knowing that a handful of folks on the coast were farming the salty bivalves, Bancroft attempted to procure thousands of them for his event. To his disappointment, the system wasn’t in place to bring in the number he needed just in time for his first oyster social, and he resorted to sourcing the main ingredient from Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay.

Regardless of their provenance, the oysters were a hit, and the social was such a success that the chef decided to host a reprise – the Alabama Oyster Social – a sold out event at Acre restaurant Jan. 30. Obviously, Alabama-farmed oysters were the stars of the show.

Thanks to a long-time family connection, Bancroft knew just where to find the help he needed to get a ton of oysters from the coast to his kitchen for this year’s event: the Auburn University School of Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquatic Sciences. Bancroft’s family and SFAAS Interim Director John Jensen go way back, 35 years to be exact, to the beginning of Jensen’s work with Paul Kennedy, Bancroft’s maternal grandfather and a catfish and tilapia farmer in Hartford, Alabama. Having witnessed SFAAS researchers’ work on his granddad’s farm, Bancroft knew the value of their efforts to establish new markets for sustainably grown products and to streamline processes for the Alabamians who produce them. He also knew about the researchers’ efforts to get oyster farming off the ground – literally and figuratively – in communities long dependent on the state’s wild fisheries.

One of the leaders in Auburn’s oyster farming efforts is Bill Walton, a fisheries and aquaculture expert and former part-time Cape Cod oyster farmer who relocated to the Gulf Coast five years ago. As leader of the Auburn University Shellfish Laboratory on Dauphin Island and a specialist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, Walton hopes to one day see “branded” oysters coming from each of the farms he’s working with – each known for a unique taste, texture, appearance or some other characteristic, and each sought after by chefs like Bancroft and those who will join him in serving up the shellfish at the social. The social will feature a variety of Alabama premium oysters, including Isle Dauphines, Mon Louis’, Murder Points, Point aux Pins and Southern Pearls, and a number of the oyster farmers and their families will be a part of the festivities.

So, what exactly is an oyster social?

“It’s not a sit-down meal,” said Bancroft, who has recruited some of the South’s most acclaimed young chefs to develop a menu that will not disappoint. “It’s a party for a purpose.”

Chef Adam Evans of Atlanta’s The Optimist, Chef Jason Stanhope of FIG in Charleston and fellow Alabama chefs Rob McDaniel and Wesley True helped Bancroft transform the farm-fresh delicacies into bite-sized dishes deserving of celebration.

In addition to oysters, the event featured tastings from Southern beverage makers Cathead Vodka, Back Forty Beer, Sazerac and others. While enjoying food, drink and live country music from Mobile natives BB Palmer and Kudzu, guests may not realized exactly what the purpose of the party was. But Bancroft stressed that the whole idea was to highlight the quality of Alabama-farmed oysters and the value of related research Auburn fisheries is doing.

“This event was a collaborative effort to support those who make their living from the Gulf and the Auburn researchers who help them succeed,” Bancroft said. “These colleagues and I in the food and beverage industry understand the ecological and economic value of sustainable fisheries, and in particular, we wanted to highlight the quality of sustainably farmed oysters being produced on Alabama’s coast.”

by Mary Catherine Gaston

Auburn oil spill research indicates recovery for microscopic invertebrates

The results are in on Deepwater Horizon oil spill research conducted by an Auburn University postdoctoral researcher, and her study indicates microscopic animals at the base of the food web that were harmed during the 2010 oil spill have recovered.

The researcher, Pamela Brannock of the Department of Biological Sciences in Auburn’s College of Sciences and Mathematics, or COSAM, together with a team from Auburn Professor Kenneth Halanych’s lab and the University of Texas San Antonio, gathered and analyzed sediment samples taken before and after the oil reached Dauphin Island. The samples provided a basis for comparison to assess how the microscopic communities of marine invertebrates that live between the sand grains, or meiofauna, fared the oil spill.

An initial study, conducted by Halanych and colleagues at the University of New Hampshire, revealed an increased presence of fungus in meiofaunal communities. According to the study, a rise in fungus indicated organismal death, and COSAM researchers were concerned that oil, or perhaps dispersants used to clean up the spill, may have been responsible for irreversibly harming meiofaunal communities.

Brannock’s latest research results indicate the fungus that was present in large amounts in the sediment immediately after the oil spill is no longer there, which means the microscopic marine invertebrates are no longer dying at an alarming rate.

“For one year, people from the Halanych Lab intermittently collected sediment samples at five intertidal locations throughout Dauphin Island and Mobile Bay,” Brannock said. “We would freeze the sediment immediately on dry ice and then store it in the minus 80 degree freezer when we came back. Coming back into the lab we would do this process called ‘decanting,’ which is basically agitating the sediment in order to release the organisms. We would then isolate the meiofauna, or animals, on a sieve, and we would extract the DNA from that material. We would then send the DNA off to be sequenced, and we used computers and bioinformatics to determine which animals were present in the communities sampled.”

Researchers are relieved that the microscopic invertebrates seem to no longer be in danger of mass destruction. However, Brannock’s research also shows that while fungus is no longer present, there has been a significant shift in the composition of meiofaunal communities compared to pre-spill communities. The research was published in The Biological Bulletin at this link: http://www.biolbull.org/content/227/2/161.full.pdf+html.

“These communities of small organisms have recovered from the oil spill, but we are still trying to assess how much natural variation exists in these communities,” Halanych said. “These communities are important because they are at the base of the food web, and they are also critically involved in helping pass nutrients and chemicals back and forth from the sediment to the water column. Pamela has continued to look quite extensively at these small organisms to see how they are faring and whether their communities are changing.”

Halanych said this kind of research is critically important to assessing the health of the Gulf Coast ecosystem.

Auburn University researchers continue to investigate effects of the oil spill

“One of the things we have learned is that the effects from an environmental catastrophe like this can take a long time to be realized,” Halanych said. “One of the main reasons we should be concerned with or interested in studying the effects is, in all likelihood, another spill is going to occur. The Gulf Coast region has a huge number of rigs, about 4,000, and we keep going into deeper and deeper water to drill. As you move into deeper water, the engineering challenges become greater and greater and greater. The concern is another big blowout, like the Deepwater Horizon, may happen in the Gulf. The hope is we have collected enough information about the Deepwater Horizon spill that we can apply that knowledge to the next spill and be able to control the damage a little bit better.”

As a member of the Gulf of Mexico Research Board, Halanych has his finger on the pulse of oil-spill-related research in the Gulf. The 20 scientists that make up the board are tasked with distributing $500 million over a 10-year period for oil spill research. The board awards funds to investigators based on a highly competitive, peer-reviewed proposal process. BP provided the funding for the Gulf of Mexico Research Board, but the funding is now independent of the multinational oil-and-gas company.

“This work continues, and it has already made a huge difference for the Gulf Coast region,” Halanych said. “Unfortunately, in many ways the Gulf Coast is the forgotten coast in terms of national funding priorities. The west coast, especially southern California, and the northeast really have major marine and oceanographic efforts, and there is a lot of money that goes there. The Gulf Coast does have institutions but typically federal funding does not flow in the same way to these areas. This research initiative is helping with that – it is helping to stimulate scientific research, and one of the things we are hoping is we will be able to build much stronger capacity so in the future we can address societal concerns and national research priorities.”

Halanych’s group will continue to investigate effects of the oil spill on the Gulf Coast. Brannock plans to continue her research into the composition of meiofaunal communities in the Gulf region and how they change over time so she can establish a baseline dataset for the next time an event like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill occurs. The Halanych Lab has also received soil samples from various NOAA cruises throughout the Gulf of Mexico taken right after the spill and a year after the spill. The lab is working to compare the meiofaunal communities in samples from sites located within or near the spill to communities present in samples from areas that were not impacted by the spill.

“As the spill was happening, a lot of people around the coast realized this was going to be a big deal, and people at Auburn, including researchers in the College of Sciences and Mathematics, started mobilizing because we knew there were going to be things that needed to be studied,” said Halanych. “COSAM researchers have stayed involved because we want to know the effects through time. We want to know how this will be a lasting problem or if this will be a lasting problem, and we want to be ready for the next oil spill.”

To learn more about Auburn’s research related to the oil spill, check out: Auburn Speaks: The Oil Spill of 2010.

by Candis Birchfield