AQUACULTURE researchers in Scotland are developing a rapid test method that will help detect the presence of a range of diseases oysters and mussels in a project that could be a significant boost to the health and wellbeing of the shellfish.

The University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute is to build a validated testing system that allows oyster growers to proactively test for Bonamia ostreae – a common and potentially fatal disease that is otherwise difficult to detect – with nearly £200,000 of funding from the Seafood Innovation Fund and the Sustainable Aquaculture Innovation Centre.

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The 15-month project will also receive support from companies and organisations across the oyster farming and research sectors, as well as from practitioners looking to restore the shellfish to their native habitats.

It includes trade body the Association of Scottish Shellfish Growers, the University of Stirling’s Institute of Aquaculture, and rewilding organisations such as Blue Marine Foundation.

Once present on a site, Bonamia ostreae cannot be eliminated and, historically, it has only been diagnosable after infection has occurred. The developers said that access to a pre-emptive test will help farmers to make more informed decisions on whether to move oysters to different locations, helping to prevent the spread of the disease.

The testing system will also detect the presence of oyster herpes virus and vibrio bacteria, along with biofouling species such as tube worms. Dr Tim Bean, career track fellow at the Roslin Institute, said it is a “rapid, cheap and simple process”. He said: “Our project will tip the way we currently diagnose diseases that affect oysters on its head – taking a pre-emptive rather than reactive approach. We are bringing together the right technology with the right people to solve some of the shellfish sector’s biggest health challenges and potentially make significant improvements to oyster health.”

Dr Nick Lake, of the Association of Scottish Shellfish Growers, said: “The development and use of a proactive testing system will benefit shellfish growers tremendously. Tube worm casts, while benign in terms of mussel quality, are difficult to remove and can interfere with packaging and presentation. Equally, Scotland has retained a disease-free status for oyster herpes virus, which causes losses of young shellfish. With improved detection methods, we would continue to seek to sustain this position, giving us advantages over shellfish production in surrounding countries. The industry is pleased to support this further development of techniques that will support our climate change resilience in the coming years.”

Heather Jones, chief executive of SAIC, said: “The development of an accessible, rapid test for a range of diseases that affect oysters will be invaluable for the sector. Armed with this testing system, growers and professionals looking to restore the species to habitats will be able to prevent the spread of the disease and act on more data than they have ever had, to the benefit of oyster health and wellbeing. This project is another great example of how collaboration can bring people and technology together to address one of the biggest challenges faced by the shellfish sector.”