Resistance warranted

The Pacific Oyster industry’s determination to fight back after the incursion of POMS has received a funding boost

By Gio Braidotti

Sarah Ugalde, research officer on Future Oysters CRC-P, inspects oysters placed on farms to investigate the period of infection for POMS.

In 2016 Tasmanian oyster farmers joined those from NSW facing the new reality of life with the ongoing threat of Pacific Oyster Mortality Syndrome (POMS). The exotic virus OsHV-1, which causes POMS, killed up to 95 per cent of Pacific Oysters during an epidemic in some parts of Tasmania early last year.

Since then, a new coordinated and collaborative research and development network has been established to help secure the productivity and profitability of the oyster industry – the $5 million Future Oysters Cooperative Research Centre Project (CRC-P). 

The CRC-P includes $3 million from the Commonwealth Department of Industry, Innovation and Science. Through an existing industry partnership agreement, Oysters Australia, the FRDC and other partners have collectively invested another $2 million.

Research programs

Managing the CRC-P are Graham Mair (Flinders University and Australian Seafood Industries) and Wayne Hutchinson (Oysters Australia). “We have seven research projects under way, structured into three programs,” Wayne Hutchinson says.

The CRC-P’s three programs are:

  • ‘Better oysters’, which deals mainly with breeding disease-tolerant oysters and developing advanced breeding methods;
  • ‘Healthy oysters’, which seeks better understanding of oyster diseases, how to manage disease risks and is developing advanced disease surveillance technology; and
  •  ‘More oysters’, a smaller program working mainly to improve production methods of Native Oysters and testing the feasibility of farming Sydney Rock Oysters in South Australia.

A key CRC-P goal is to breed POMS-resistant Pacific Oysters and to manage the supply of disease-resistant broodstock to hatcheries in NSW, Tasmania and South Australia, which have different biosecurity and risk-management requirements.

Playing a key role is Australian Seafood Industries (ASI), managed by Matt Cunningham, a company established in 2004 in part to selectively breed oysters. “Having a Pacific Oyster breeding program in place in Australia meant that within a month of the POMS incursion in NSW seven years ago, we had family lines growing in the affected sites so we could test their level of genetic resistance,” Matt Cunningham says. “Commercial hatcheries now have access to Pacific Oyster broodstock that display 70 to 80 per cent POMS survival when they are one year old.” 

Biosecurity restrictions that prevent the movement of oysters bred in Tasmania to South Australia have left oyster growers in SA with difficulties sourcing enough spat. Funding from the Future Oysters CRC-P has made it possible to establish a breeding hub at the South Australian Aquatic Science Centre.

Using ASI broodstock, maintained in South Australia, senior researcher Xiaoxu Li has begun to replicate the ASI’s breeding program to secure future supplies of POMS-resistant spat for South Australian oyster farmers.

Detect and manage

Other CRC-P funding through the ‘Healthy Oysters’ program allows researchers, led by Christine Crawford from the University of Tasmania, to work closely with oyster growers on farms in POMS-affected areas in Tasmania.  

Key research issues include understanding the POMS window of infection and how the virus spreads. It is also developing fast and cost-effective techniques to detect the POMS virus, and management practices that allow industry to operate in the presence of the disease.

The data being collected will eventually be used to develop a predictive model to help the oyster industry forecast POMS danger periods.

In the meantime, Christine Crawford, together with John Preston from Biosecurity Tasmania, provide a monthly newsletter to oyster farmers, available on the University of Tasmania’s website.

While OsHV-1 virus causes mortality in oysters, the disease cannot be transmitted to humans and there are no health implications from consuming Pacific Oysters from POMS-affected region

FRDC Research Code: 2016-800

More information

Wayne Hutchinson, wayne.hutchinson@frdc.com.au