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Request for Proposals: Advancing Shellfish Pathogen Knowledge and Technical Assistance Efforts to Foster a Sustainable and Safe Shellfish Aquaculture Industry

The S.C. Sea Grant Consortium (Consortium) is seeking faculty and their students to team up with Sea Grant Program Specialists to form a research-student-specialist study group to conduct a scientific review of the state of knowledge on shellfish pathogens and shellfish-related public health risks in the southeastern U.S. (N.C., S.C., GA, FL). Teams from Consortium member institutions are invited to apply.

Summary

This project aims to identify and elevate the current state of knowledge on shellfish pathogens and shellfish-related public health risks in the southeastern U.S. The identification of potential risks posed to the shellfish resource and the shellfish-consuming public will provide information for stakeholders to use in decision-making related to harvest, selling, consumption, and management of shellfish, with emphasis on the eastern oyster, Crassostrea virginica.

The Consortium has already engaged in scoping meetings with key stakeholders, constituents, partners, and target audiences from academia, resource and public health agencies, international partners, industry, NGOs, and Sea Grant to identify priority questions and information needs about shellfish pathogens and harmful bacteria in natural and controlled environments in the region. In undertaking this study, researchers will generate a status report on the current state of knowledge related to these identified priority information needs, and a series of recommendations on needed research, engagement, and future directions to foster a healthy shellfish aquaculture industry, a healthy natural shellfish resource, and a healthy public in the southeastern United States.

The S.C. Sea Grant Consortium

The S.C. Sea Grant Consortium’s mission is to provide science-based information about the practical use and conservation of coastal and marine resources to residents, communities, and businesses in order to foster a sustainable economy and environment for the state of South Carolina. The Consortium serves to support, improve, and share research, education, training, and advisory services in fields related to ocean and coastal resources. These program priorities fall within the context of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Sea Grant College Program Strategic Plan and the Consortium’s FY18-23 Strategic Plan.

Strength in Partnerships

Proposals are invited from faculty and graduate student teams to be considered through a competitive proposal and external review process. The faculty member(s) and student(s) will form a Study Group with a Consortium Program Specialist to complete the project. Applicants will be faculty/student teams from Consortium member institutions. Applicants will engage with the Shellfish Aquaculture Specialist, Sarah Pedigo, and others as appropriate as a member(s) of the Study Group to develop and submit their proposal. Specialist(s) will involve Sea Grant communications staff as needed. We encourage project proposals which can become part of the student’s honors thesis or capstone paper, or serve as an earned-credit internship.

Background

In the southeastern United States, the eastern oyster, Crassostrea virginica grows naturally in clusters forming intertidal reefs. These reefs are keystone features for coastal ecosystems and have traditionally been harvested for the bushel market which represents an economically and culturally valuable industry in the Southeast region. Within the last decade, advancements in oyster culture gear and technology have enhanced techniques to produce single oysters which fetch a higher price-per-unit as a half-shell product. As a result, a number of commercial off-bottom oyster farms have been established in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Florida with significant interest and development in Georgia. Shellfish aquaculture in the southeastern U.S. is regarded as a valuable emerging industry with the potential to maintain and evolve heritage working waterfront communities while improving local environmental conditions, and demand for single oysters indicates potential for the industry to continue expansion along the Southeast region. Ensuring longevity of the shellfish aquaculture industry, as well as the health of natural oyster populations and the health of those who consume them, depends on the ability to sustain productive crops and provide a safe product to consumers.

Shellfish pathogens have been documented along the East Coast of the U.S. and are capable of mass mortality events given host susceptibility, agent virulence, and environmental conditions. State regulations are mandated as an effort to control the spread of shellfish disease along the coast, requiring lab tests and permits for interstate transfer and planting of seed or shellstock. Pathogens known to be present in the Southeast region include Perkinsus marinus, a protozoan parasite that causes dermo, and Haplosporidium nelsoni which causes MSX. Pathogens documented in other regions of the U.S. (Bonamia exitiosa, Haplosporidium costale, and Roseovarius crassostreae) should be noted as emerging concerns as the industry expands, given the previous transfer of both dermo and MSX to the Southeast U.S. Looking forward, the effects of climate change (e.g., increased sea-surface temperature and salinity, change in ocean chemistry, as well as increased coastal flooding associated with sea-level rise) could have the potential to shift shellfish disease dynamics presenting implications for sustaining the shellfish aquaculture industry and natural oyster populations. Understanding current prevalence, intensity, and distribution of known pathogens as well as those of concern would inform best management practices and regulations set to sustain healthy wild and farmed oyster stock.

Single mariculture oysters are often consumed as a premium raw bar product. The consumption of any raw seafood poses risk for human illness from microbial hazards like Vibrio parahaemolyticus and Vibrio vulnificus. The National Shellfish Sanitation Program (NSSP) guidelines direct state sanitation regulations for the shellfish aquaculture industry to protect consumers from these microbial hazards. Protocols include time-to-temperature harvesting schedules, typically a 14-day submergence requirement prior to harvest, as well as requirements to harvest from approved water quality areas. Documenting science-based information on a state-by-state basis will enable a balance for growers to maximize production efficiencies while also providing a safe product. For instance, recent regulatory changes have profited the industry by allowing harvest of cultured triploid oysters in summer months and certain Southeast states have reduced re-submergence times from a typical 14 days to seven which lessens time and labor costs associated with removing biofouling that accumulates onto harvestable product when gear is submerged. In looking forward, understanding Vibrio spp. virulence in association with climate change effects (e.g., increasing sea-surface temperatures and freshwater influx from heavy rains) and having the ability to inform sanitation regulations will be imperative to sustaining the shellfish aquaculture industry and public health.

Objectives

The key objectives for this research opportunity include:

  1. Phase 1a: Characterize Similarities and Differences in Regulatory Environment (e.g., sanitation handling and harvesting requirements, seed and shellstock importation, thresholds for closures, approved areas for harvest) for each southeastern state (North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida).
  2. Phase 1b: Conduct a Comprehensive Review of Existing Scientific Knowledge concerning shellfish disease and human health-related aspects of shellfish consumption in the Southeast United States. There has been a sizable volume of research and data collection regarding the role of shellfish pathogens in southeastern U.S. systems and on possible amelioration of pathogen effects in both wild and cultured shellfish as well as microbial risks associated with consuming shellfish. In order to establish a longer-term research, management, and outreach agenda, it will be critically important to have in-hand a technical synthesis of what we know – and what we do not know – about these issues and the current laws, policies, and regulations related to shellfish and pathogens. Deliverables must include a technical State of Knowledge report and outreach summary materials; peer-reviewed publications as well as conference presentations are encouraged. The State of Knowledge should include:
    1. Document the current understanding of prevalence, intensity, and distribution of known pathogens (e.g., Perkinsus marinus, Haplosporidium nelsoni) and associating environmental factors with disease dynamics in the Southeast region
    2. Investigation of prevalence, intensity, distribution of pathogens of emerging concern globally (i.e., latitudes or ecosystems similar to the Southeast U.S.) in relation to emerging concerns for the Southeast region (e.g., Bonamia exitiosa, Haplosporidium costale, ROD, OsHV-1)
    3. Characterize pathways of transmission and life history of shellfish pathogens and characterize strain diversity of common Southeast region pathogens
    4. Document the status of molecular/genetic assays for pathogens of emerging concern
    5. Characterize baseline levels of Vibrio parahaemolyticus and Vibrio vulnificus in oysters across the Southeast and document environmental drivers (e.g., temperature, salinity) and current state of understanding as it relates to the impact of handling practices on levels of Vibrio spp. (e.g., resubmergence)
    6. Investigate how climate change (e.g., warming sea temperatures, changes in ocean chemistry, sea-level rise) will impact prevalence of shellfish disease and the prevalence of human health impacts from shellfish
  3. Phase 2: Identify Critical Information Gaps and Needs to be Addressed through Collaborative Research. The project team will host a workshop with key stakeholders, partners, regulatory agencies, academics, and extension specialists to share findings and identify avenues for future collaborative research. Products to be produced through this objective will consist of a “Key Hurdles” document which outlines the information gaps, management challenges, and industry limitations, along with a final “Gaps and Needs Analysis” which will comprise a series of recommendations on needed research, engagement, and future directions to foster a healthy shellfish aquaculture industry, a healthy natural shellfish resource, and a healthy public in the southeastern United States – guiding the region’s shellfish pathogen research and outreach agenda for at least the next three-to-five years.

Preparation of Proposals

Proposals should be detailed but not exceed 10 pages as detailed in the Outline for Study Group Proposals, and must include the faculty, affiliation, and interest in the project, and the graduate student member(s) and their interest and qualifications; a discussion of the proposed approach to the project; and a budget form and budget justification. Budget should be used to support student time, travel, and materials. Indirect costs (IDCs) are not allowable as the projects are supported by Sea Grant funding, but they can be used to meet the match requirement. The budget must include a 50% match in time, supplies, salaries, or IDCs, or a combination of some or all.

Available Funding

Up to $50,000 is available for this project, with one or more students participating. The study group will engage the shellfish industry and partners between phases to determine any formative adjustments that will be made for Phase 2. A match of 50% is required.

Electronic Submission of Full Proposals

The Consortium requires electronic submission of proposals. Proposals must be prepared and electronically submitted as Word and Excel documents. The Consortium also requests that a complete version of the full proposal be submitted as a PDF file. Proposals must be submitted by 5 p.m. on November 5, 2021 with the subject line “Shellfish State of Knowledge” to studygroup@scseagrant.org.

Indirect Costs on Sea Grant-Funded Projects

In the spirit of cooperation among Consortium member institutions, and in order to get the maximum benefit from Sea Grant funds available for its programs, it is the long-standing policy of the Consortium Board of Directors not to use Sea Grant funds to pay indirect costs to its member institutions; however, indirect costs may be used to satisfy the National Sea Grant College Program’s 50% matching fund requirement.

Proposal Timeline

  • Full Proposals Due at Consortium Office, Signed and Endorsed – November 5, 2021
  • Notification of Successful Proposals – December 3, 2021
  • Start Date for Project – January 1, 2022
  • Phase 1 Progress Report due – May 30, 2022
  • Phase 2 Final Report due – September 15, 2022

Questions

Questions and discussion about individual projects should be addressed to one of the individuals listed below: