A century ago, the oyster reined supreme in Delaware Bay. Hundreds of schooners plied the bay, dredging the oyster beds for the savory “Delaware salts” that were shipped by refrigerated railroad car to restaurants and stores across the nation.
The popular shellfish sustained an important industry until the late 1950s when disease rapidly decimated the oyster population, which has never recovered.
Patrick Gaffney, a marine biologist at the University of Delaware, has been working with a regional team of scientists to help give oysters a fighting chance against disease. On Tuesday, January 22, from noon to 1 p.m. at the Hotel du Pont in Wilmington, he will provide a closer look at the oyster, the fishery’s history in our region, and the status of current restoration efforts in his presentation, “Atlantic Oyster Fisheries in the 21st Century.”
The lecture, which includes lunch, is sponsored by the UD Graduate College of Marine Studies and the Sea Grant College Program. The event costs $10 per person, and advance reservations are required.
“In the heyday of the Delaware Bay oyster fishery, landings exceeded 3 million bushels per year,” Gaffney says. “Today that figure is only about 30,000 bushels per year, or just 1% of its former productivity.”
While overfishing and pollution have been factors in the oyster’s decline, Gaffney says the most devastating impacts have been made by two single-celled parasites called MSX and Dermo.
“When these diseases came on the scene, the oyster population was nearly wiped out,” Gaffney notes. “While MSX and Dermo are harmless to humans, they are lethal to oysters. They establish themselves on the oyster’s gills as it filters food from the water and then invade its circulatory system. Many oysters die within eight weeks after becoming infected. Since both diseases thrive in warm, high-salinity waters, droughts typically spell devastation for our native oyster.”
In research funded by Delaware Sea Grant, Gaffney has been working with scientists in New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia to develop new genetic techniques for screening oysters for disease resistance and evaluating the success of oyster breeding programs that currently are under way in the Chesapeake Bay.
“While I don’t think it’s realistic to expect the oyster industry to ever be what it was years ago, disease-resistant oysters could help the industry regain some lost ground,” Gaffney says.
Gaffney holds a Ph.D. in biological sciences from the State University of New York at Stony Brook and a bachelor’s degree in zoology from the University of California at Berkeley. In addition to maintaining an active research program, he teaches courses in population genetics, statistics for the marine sciences, and molecular tools used in marine biology.
The lecture includes lunch at the award-winning Hotel du Pont. To reserve your seat, at $10 per person, call (302) 831-8062. Or e-mail your reservations to MarineCom@udel.edu.