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Cashing in on Oyster Renaissance: Branding Premium Gulf Oysters

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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

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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