University of Maryland Extension

UME to Partner in $10M Multi-Institutional Aquaculture Research Project

oyster aquaculture in Maryland
Advanced technologies will improve the aquaculture industry's profitability.
Image Credit: 
Edwin Remsberg Studios

University of Maryland Extension (UME) faculty are partnering in a multi-institutional aquaculture research project, led by UMD’s A. James Clark School of Engineering and funded by a $10 million United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) grant.The interdisciplinary team intends to develop unique technological advancements and a sustainable management framework to improve shellfish aquaculture, including underwater drones for population assessment and smart harvesting technology.

“The UME team has over four decades of experience working with colleagues and industry in the United States,” said Donald Webster, senior agent for UME and Maryland Sea Grant. “Shellfish growers need advanced technology, like that now used by land-based farmers, to increase production and expand output to provide quality food for the nation. Bringing robotics, along with other high technology, to shellfish farming will allow them to be more competitive and profitable while working in an environment that is underwater.”

The team, led by Dr. Miao Yu of the A. James Clark School of Engineering, includes members from the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences, as well as researchers from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES), University of Maryland Eastern Shore (UMES), Louisiana State University (LSU), Pacific Shellfish Institute, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (VT), and Fraunhofer USA Center for Experimental Software Engineering. 

“This is the first instance of robotics being applied to underwater shellfish farming,” Webster said. “It is needed to bring the industry into the current century for technology rather than rely on gear, like the dredge, that was first invented in the 1830s and is known to kill small oysters and spread out important bottom substrate.”

“We need to modernize the technology used in shellfish aquaculture, which is decades if not centuries behind the technology used in land agriculture,” said Clark School Professor Yang Tao, a collaborator on the grant. “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?”

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 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,” said Yu.

Webster will be working alongside UME colleagues Dr. Cathy Liu, UME seafood safety specialist, and Matt Parker, senior agent associate for UME’s environment and natural resources program in Prince George’s County, to build a national advisory team of extension and industry partners that will meet periodically during the project to provide input and updates on the progress being made. 

“The UME team has consulted with colleagues around the East, Gulf and West coasts of the U.S. to gain interest and support for the project,” said Webster. “This will also serve as a way to schedule field trials for the equipment in diverse locations that differ hydrographically to ensure test results that can be applied across broad areas.”

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. “Advances in oyster aquaculture are uniquely positioned to rebuild our oyster industry to benefit the economy, employment and the environment,” said Webster.

For more information on the project and associated grant, go to https://bioe.umd.edu/news/story/marylandled-multiinstitutional-research-team-receives-10m-to-transform-shellfish-farming-with-smart.

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