Science Meets Shellfish
By Lisa Cavanaugh
Dan Ward has gotten to know Cochlodinium polykrikoides really well. This species of harmful algal bloom began showing up at Ward’s Aquafarms in North Falmouth soon after it became operational in the summer of 2012.
“It was around mid-August when I noticed the orange water color,” says Ward, describing the red tide that struck his grants. “The result was that any oyster less than an inch died, while any larger than an inch paused in their growth.”
Being a scientist with degrees in coastal management and environmental science, he grew curious and reached out to the nearby Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and his alma mater, the University of Rhode Island, to see if research was being done on the problem.
“I ended up setting up a post doctorate study myself,” says Ward. He worked with a researcher from Connecticut to examine the harmful algae, especially in regards to the impact on commercial shellfish species: “It was a great example of ‘bottom up’ research.”
Ward’s goal is to utilize his shellfish farm as a successful commercial entity and a platform for research, strategies, and practical applications. His hybrid marine and science career began after he finished undergraduate studies in coastal management at URI and took a job working on a lobster boat in New Hampshire. He then got his Masters at the University of New Hampshire and briefly considered pursuing finfish aquaculture.
“It is difficult in southern New England to find species to survive in farms,” he says. “We have such a wide water temperature range here, sometimes over 20-30 degrees centigrade in fluctuation.”
So instead Ward went to work at the Marine Biological Lab in Woods Hole where he started research in shellfish, which led him to open his own shellfish company farming oysters, quahogs and bay scallops.
He began the permitting process in 2010 and by 2012 was operational. In addition to 10 acres with 1,000 cages in Megansett Harbor in North Falmouth, Ward also has a farm in Orleans, and has just bought a marina in Wareham to set up a hatchery to produce seed.
Ward lives in Falmouth with his wife, a teacher in Bourne, and two young daughters. “I always wanted to own my own business and I also can’t stop being intellectually curious,” he says.
He recommends the USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Grants program, which assists farmers (including aquaculturists) with small grants to explore viable solutions to farming obstacles. “It is a great program that helped me when I was first starting up,” he says.
Some of his employees are combined farm managers/research assistants. “One of my farm managers is doing his masters at UMASS Dartmouth,” he says. “He saw a problem with parasites on bay scallops, so we put in for a grant and now he is doing research on our animals to see how bad a problem it is and how much it will impact meat yield and quality.” The data and mitigation solutions will be made publicly available.
“The research is a great help to us at the farm,” he says, “and the practical, actionable information can help others as well.”
Ward regularly presents at industry conferences and partners with organizations such as Barnstable County’s Cape Cod Cooperative Extension. Joshua Reitsma, Marine Program Specialist at the Cooperative Extension, has worked on several projects with Ward.
“Dan has done a lot of work in the area of bay scallop nursery culture and grow out,” says Reitsma. “We’ve been working with him to apply his lessons learned to local bay scallop enhancement efforts and hope to continue that with the commercial industry soon.”
Ward also recently participated in a farm management workshop organized by the Cooperative Extension for shellfish growers in which he demonstrated an app-based management tool to help keep track of gear and inventory. “It was very helpful for other growers to see a fellow grower explaining how a reasonably priced mapping tool on a tablet could help manage farm operations.” says Reitsma.
“That’s the nice thing about innovation,” says Ward. “The technology is there. You just have to invest in it and use it.”
Ward Aquafarms has piloted Verizon’s GPS tracking on sold product.
“There is an appeal for consumers to know where their shellfish comes from and how well it has been transported and stored,” says Ward.
There is benefit to him as well, proving his accountability: “When my oysters leave my farm and go to my wholesaler they are below 50 degrees.” Once they move beyond that, Ward can’t be sure they are handled correctly and spoiled oysters could mean a financial hit. “If I have to take recall of 10,000 pieces that hurts both my bottom line and my brand,” he says.
Technology has also recently aided him in his annual battle against Cochlodinium. A couple of years ago Ward gave a talk at the Northeast Aquaculture Conference & Exposition about labor intensive sampling of water every 48 hours that he would inspect under a microscope for cochlodinium particles. Afterward, a woman from McLane Research Laboratories told him about a new device they had developed in conjunction with WHOI called an Imaging Flow Cytobot (IFCB), which can focus on particles like cochlodinium, take 15 photos a second, and send the images to the cloud.
“I call it facial recognition for algae,” he laughs. “The water may still look clear to the naked eye, but I can see a graph of cell counts per milliliter of water for the entire bloom. If there is an increase that could become deadly in a few days, then I can move my seed to deeper water where there is less concentration of algae.”
Ward realizes that this is not the way most shellfish growers think and that old habits can die hard. But in a changing world where some hazards can’t be see until it’s too late, it is critical to look for innovative solutions.
“I can’t imagine it any other way,” he says. “It is just the way my mind works. I always want to be learning new things and figuring things out.”
“I want to share information. If someone has these same problems we want them to come talk to us. We will help you solve them.”