A team of researchers at Cape Breton University has undertaken a three-year project that may re-establish the Bras d’Or Lake oyster industry. The project, led by the Verschuren Centre, is funded by the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) and the Nova Scotia Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture, in partnership with a number of communities and oyster lease holders. It all begins with a microscopic parasite called MSX (Multi-nucleated Spherical Unknown-X). It’s scientific name is Haplosprodium nelsoni. The parasite, found along the Eastern seaboard, was first discovered in the 1950’s after a mass mortality of oysters. Though it is completely harmless to humans and there is no fear of eating infected oysters, the parasite has become a huge problem to the oyster industry as a whole. The parasite has been moving steadily along the US coast, but made the leap to the Bras d’Or Lakes in the early 2000’s, an environment previously thought to be unsuitable for H. nelsoni because of its cold temperatures and low salinity. When the parasite was discovered in the Bras d’Or Lake, restrictions were put in place so that oysters couldn’t be moved from Bras d’Or Lake. That year, Nova Scotia’s oyster production fell by almost 80 per cent, giving perspective on the role the Bras d’Ors Lake plays in the broader Nova Scotia oyster industry. Now, a team of researchers are conducting research to find out the environmental limitations of H. nelsoni and ideally, determine its life cycle and the factors involved in the progression from infection to disease to mortality. Rod Beresford, Assistant Professor of Integrative Science at CBU, is the lead researcher. “For me, parasites are fascinating creatures and this one is particularly interesting because we know so little about it. It has been around (the US) for 60 years and we still don’t know the life cycle or how oysters actually get infected,” says Rod, “We have a unique opportunity to try and figure it out, right here in Cape Breton.”
The focus of the research project is to intensely monitor various environmental conditions as well as oyster growth, which researchers hope will provide an answer to what conditions are suitable for oyster growth, but unsuitable for parasite progression. Currently, Rod and the rest of the team are exploring whether those conditions may be found near the surface of the water, as opposed to the bottom where oysters would typically live and have been grown commercially in the past. With the participation of nine leaseholders and three DFO oyster sanctuary sites, researchers will grow oysters near the surface of the water where there is a greater variation in temperature and salinity. Each site will provide different environmental conditions for comparison with the end goal of having a successful, productive, oyster aquaculture industry in the Bras d’Or Lakes. Rod says this project wouldn’t be possible without the support of the partners mentioned above, as well as the help of individuals such as Anita Basque, Robin Stuart and Joe Googoo. “This is truly a project driven by local industry needs with global application and it really belongs to everyone involved — the funders, the researchers, the industry and the communities,” says Rod. This project is just one example of the incredible research being carried out through partnerships with the Verschuren Centre. We are so #CBUProud of the innovative and groundbreaking research conducted each and every day here at CBU along with the surrounding communities.