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Research team receives $10M to transform shellfish farming with smart technology

June 26, 2020

University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) researcher Matt Gray and a group of University of Maryland researchers and institutions throughout the U.S. received a $10 million grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to bring advanced technology to the domestic shellfish aquaculture industry, with a specific focus on improving bottom-culture of oysters. The five-year project seeks to develop an autonomous underwater vehicle that can help with management of crops, improve understanding of lease conditions, and do all of this will having a low environmental impact.

“We believe oyster crops could be better managed and tracked with underwater vehicles equipped with sensors that also have environmental sensing capabilities,” said Matt Gray, an ecophysiologist working on sustainable fisheries at UMCES’ Horn Point Laboratory in Cambridge, Maryland. “This might sound far-fetched until one learns about how terrestrial farmers can track crop growth and harvest crops while they are far from the field using satellites and computer-controlled tractors.”

Oysters have a long and treasured history in the Chesapeake Bay region, and the aquaculture industry is growing rapidly in Maryland. Gray's role in this project is to help understand how technology can improve production, as well as explore how technology makes production more ecologically sustainable or even beneficial to the environment. At the Horn Point Laboratory, his work is to broaden the base of knowledge and provide relevant information to help inform stakeholder, management, and policy in Maryland and elsewhere.

“While the wild fisheries are at historic lows, the aquaculture industry is growing rapidly in Maryland and there is a lot of excitement and interest in seeing it grow. Oysters, including those being grown in farms, improve the environment, so the expansion of the industry will also benefit the Bay's health,” said Gray.

The team, led by Professor Miao Yu of UMD’s A. James Clark School of Engineering, will develop novel technologies and a sustainable management framework to help farmers tap the economic potential and environmental benefits of shellfish aquaculture, which until now has been bottlenecked by outdated tools and methods. 

“Aquaculture of shellfish such as oysters, mussels, and scallops provides a sustainable, environmentally beneficial source of high-protein food, as well a way to grow the economy in rural coastal areas,” said Yu, who will lead the multi-institutional team of engineers, biologists, computer scientists, economists, and educators. “Up to this point, we haven’t really explored this industry’s potential because it still relies on antiquated technologies—in some cases, tools that go back hundreds of years.

“By developing and incorporating advanced technologies into shellfish farming, including the use of underwater drone monitoring and smart harvesting, we can bring about a major boost in production,” Yu said.

Aquaculture of shellfish is perhaps the most ecologically sustainable form of aquaculture, as well as an important driver of coastal economy. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has ranked the U.S. high for potential industry growth of this high-quality and nutritious protein source, but the industry lacks the basic technological advancement found in today’s digital, automated world.

Along with improving the efficiency of aquaculture industries, increasing technological advancements can be beneficial to wild fish populations and the continuing effort to increase the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

“Oysters—including those being grown in farms—improve the environment, so the expansion of the industry will also benefit the Chesapeake Bay’s health,” said Gray. “We’re excited to see how technology can improve production while at the same time making that production more ecologically sustainable or even beneficial to the environment.”

“Drone-based technologies for crop surveying and early disease detection. Vision-guided crop cultivation. GPS-guided harvesting. These technologies exist for land agriculture; why shouldn’t they for shellfish aquaculture, too?” said Clark School Professor Yang Tao, a collaborator on the grant. “It’s a great opportunity for us to help the coastal communities of the U.S. and Maryland, including the Atlantic, Pacific, Gulf, and Chesapeake.”

Current practices and technologies used in shellfish farming have many shortcomings. For example, harvesting of bottom-culture shellfish relies on dredging, in which machinery drags a net across the bottom of an ocean, bay, or other body of water to scrape up and collect buried shellfish. The process is highly imprecise and can be ecologically catastrophic by damaging reefs, which are important habitats for oysters and other aquatic species.

By synthesizing recent advances in the fields of robotics, agricultural automation, computer vision, sensing and imaging, and artificial intelligence, the team will develop new, smart technologies and a management framework to help enhance productivity and profitability for both farmers and coastal economies while better protecting fragile aquatic ecosystems.

 “In land agriculture, tractor operators use visual cues such as rows of crops to achieve precise harvesting; however, there are no geo-visual cues available for shellfish farmers. This, coupled with the inaccuracy of naval GPS, leads to disorganized and wasteful dredging paths,” said Tao. “A smart dredging process that incorporates available, modern technologies such as real-time, high-precision GPS, underwater imaging and sonar positioning, and advanced environmental sensing would help—and these are solutions within reach.”