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Research could ease $6-billion seafood trade deficit

OCEAN SPRINGS — The University of Southern Mississippi’s Institute for Marine Science (IMS) Gulf Coast Research Laboratory (GCRL) is one of the largest employers in Ocean Springs with its 160 employees involved in a wide range of research important to marine resources in the Gulf of Mexico. But its economic impact could expand far beyond the borders of this small town or even the state of Mississippi.

Because of American’s appetite for seafood — particularly shrimp — the U.S. has an annual trade deficit in fish products of $6 billion per year. About half of the trade deficit is in shrimp.

“The research we are conducting is of economic importance when you stop and think that the U.S. trade deficit in fish products continues to soar,” said Dr. Jay Grimes, dean of the IMS and director of the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory. “U.S. consumer demand for fish and especially shrimp is so great that we can’t keep up with traditional methods, primarily wild-caught shrimp. We believe aquaculture is the only answer. Much of the research we concentrate on is in aquaculture production of shrimp and other species. Eventually we hope to turn around that major trade deficit in fish and fish products in the U.S.”

The U.S. imports 80% of the shrimp consumed in the U.S., much of it from foreign aquaculture operations. GCRL scientists worked with colleagues in the U.S. Marine Shrimp Farming Program consortium to introduce shrimp stocks for aquaculture in 1989. Production in outdoor shrimp ponds in the U.S. more than doubled in the 1990s until many of the shrimp farms were struck by outbreaks of foreign shrimp viruses.

GCRL researchers are now searching for ways to avoid virus problems and make shrimp aquaculture viable. They have experimented with the indoor “closed” systems that both protect the shrimp from disease and reduce waste water production.

Besides aquaculture, the lab also is involved in a broad array of programs important for the management of recreational and commercial fisheries. The lab is developing the technology and strategies state and federal agencies can use to enhance the stocks of red snapper. Red snapper, which are highly prized by both recreational and commercial fishermen, are overfished in the Gulf of Mexico. The lab is experimenting with aquaculture as one option for restoring depleted fish stocks. Red snapper eggs are hatched in captivity, tagged juveniles are released into the wild and the results evaluated.

Aquaculture operations are expected to be moved to the lab’s new facilities at Cedar Point in Ocean Springs after construction is completed. Land at Cedar Point was donated the GCRL by the Jackson County Board of Supervisors.

“By the end of the calendar year, we will have at least two buildings completed or near completion on that property, and we will begin to move our aquaculture research and education activities to that site,” Grimes said.

Grimes said he envisions the site as being home to world-class research and development focused on marine aquaculture and marine animal and ecosystem health as programs are expanded over the next five years.

“As a member of the U.S. Marine Shrimp Farming Program, the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory has developed a strong research and education program in marine animal and ecosystem health,” Grimes said. “But to meet current grant commitments and more fully develop its marine animal and ecosystem health program in support of aquaculture research and development, the GCRL must expand. That expansion will occur at Cedar Point.”

Also, the state college board has approved expanding the IMS J.L. Scott Marine Education Center and Aquarium program and facilities at Point Cadet located on the southeastern shore of Biloxi. More than 75,000 Mississippi residents and tourists visit the J.L. Scott Marine Education Center & Aquarium each year.

And on the other side of the Coast, plans are proceeding for moving the IMS research and education programs at Stennis Space Center to larger quarters.

“Clearly, we are rapidly expanding our infrastructure,” Grimes said. “But infrastructure alone does not make a quality program. We are proud of our faculty, staff, students and instrumentation. They are presently jammed into overcrowded situations, but they will soon be able to move into roomier facilities and continue their groundbreaking work.”

Grimes said that USM is one of only a dozen academic institutions in the U.S. able to track minute traces of elements that can affect marine and aquatic environments. The new state-of-the-art instrumentation, the result of a National Science Foundation grant to IMS geochemist Alan Shiller at Stennis Space Center, can measure chemicals in the environment in concentrations as low as sub-parts per trillion.

“It is truly an instrument that can pick the needle out of the haystack,” Grimes said.

Shiller will use the new instrumentation in his current investigation of dissolved trace elements in river waters. Some of the elements are toxic even in extremely low concentrations; others hold clues to environmental processes such as weathering. The high resolution, high performance inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometer facility will give access to the sophisticated instrumentation to scientists from a variety of scientific disciplines, agencies and universities in the region. It will also give USM students a “hands-on” advantage as they prepare for careers in analytical chemistry and environmental science.

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com or (228) 872-3457.

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