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Under new program, scientists searching for solutions after bay scallop disaster

Scientists at Stony Brook University have been granted $240,000 in funding from New York Sea Grant to research a selective breeding program for scallops, in partnership with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. 

The project aims to address the struggling bay scallop population in New York, which — impacted by parasites and rising water temperatures — has suffered an adult die-off every year since 2019. The Department of Commerce declared the state’s bay scallop fishery a fishery resource disaster in July, making it eligible for disaster assistance.

Stony Brook professor Bassem Allam, a lead investigator on the study, said the selective breeding program will evaluate which scallops fare better under environmental stress. 

Selective breeding is a practice that’s been around for thousands of years, that involves choosing parents with specific traits to produce offspring with more desirable characteristics. 

“On the basic science aspects, we are trying to understand host-parasite interaction, how the animal is trying to resist the infection, what are the immune processes put in place to defend itself. On the applied aspect of the research, funded by New York Sea Grant, can we identify scallops that do better? So we can move this scallop towards restoration down the line,” he said. 

“It’s a really simple question. Is the resistance to those combined stressors, disease and environmental stress, genetically dictated or not?” he said. “If it is genetically dictated, then there is a hope we can identify those resistant animals that can be used for aquaculture restoration.”

The program will gather adult scallops from the environment, targeting field populations both with heavy mortality events and less severe die-offs. The researchers plan to breed the two groups in a lab to observe how their offspring fare compared to each other. 

There is another segment of the study in which researchers will conduct lab challenge experiments, exposing groups to stressful conditions. Survivors will also be kept for breeding, Mr. Allam said. 

The program, which has already started, plans to breed the scallops in late May or early June. Mr. Allam expects juveniles this summer to do well across all groups and differential mortality to start showing next year.

Since the scallops will be pulled from a local brood, they can be placed safely back into the environment. The ultimate goal is to help restore the local scallop population. 

“If we have really a good, superior scallop line, I think it should be a prime target for breeding for restoration.” Mr. Allam said. “If we can really identify strains of scallop that do better, I think this would be a great advance in our ability to maintain a wide population, to restoration efforts.”

Rebecca Shuford, director of New York Sea Grant, emphasized that the research is driven by community needs.

“You have a very long standing, culturally-based scallop fishery on Long Island that’s gotten walloped a number of times over the last several decades, and this is the most recent impact,” she said. “If the work that Bassem [Allam] and partners are doing can help identify that superior strain, that might ultimately help with the resilience and sustainability of the resource and therefore the fishery, that’s really what the hope would be.”

The New York Sea Grant funding is part of a biannual RFP (request for proposal) that is meant to address key priorities in a four-year strategic plan aligned with federal funding from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and driven by stakeholders, according to Ms. Shuford.

“We’re trying to make sure we meet coastal priorities and objectives that are key concerns and interests to coastal communities, whether it’s in sustainable seafood, so wild caught aquaculture, whether it’s in healthy coastal ecosystems or things like water quality, or harmful algal blooms, marine debris, things like that,” she said. 

New York Sea Grant is a statewide network “of integrated research, education and extension services promoting coastal community economic vitality, environmental sustainability and citizen awareness about the state’s marine and Great Lake resources,” according to a press release. 

The program works with educators and in environmental literacy and workforce development, supports graduate and undergraduate students, and funds research. New York Sea Grant also works with coastal communities “related to things like sea level rise and flooding, erosion, being able to be prepared and responsive, know what your resources and tools are for these coastal processes that may be influencing or damaging their properties,” according to Ms. Shuford.

The selective breeding program for local scallops was among eight research projects announced in the most recent round of funding, totalling around $1.3 million.

Some other projects that received funding are investigating ways to preserve excess scallop larvae in hatcheries for later seeding; the viability of a summer seaweed crop off the shores of Long Island; and the “spatial variability of carbon storage in eelgrass sediments across the Long Island South Shore and Peconic Estuaries,” to assess how eelgrass ecosystems can combat the impacts of ocean acidification.

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