New Virginia Seafood Agricultural Research and Extension Center benefits the commonwealth and partners for decades to come
By Keri Rouse
From deep-water fishermen and Chesapeake Bay crabbers to seafood distributors and the booming aquaculture industry, the impact and extent of the commonwealth’s seafood industry is vast. The Virginia Seafood Agricultural Research and Extension Center (Seafood AREC) is a vital source of information to help Virginia’s industry thrive in an increasingly competitive global market.
And with its new three-story, 22,224-square-foot research facility in Hampton, Virginia, the Seafood AREC can serve up even more applied research and technical assistance than ever.
The center’s location is at the heart of the Virginia seafood industry, surrounded by multigenerational companies while providing ample opportunity for collaboration with industry.
Food Safety Classroom
Food quality and safety are crucial ingredients at every stage of the seafood supply chain — from the farm or ocean all the way to the plate. Seafood producers and processors turn to the Seafood AREC for microbiological testing, technical support, and food safety training. The third-floor reception area opens to a multipurpose classroom which serves as a venue for cooking demonstrations, consumer education programs, and training opportunities in English and Spanish to teach industry members how to ensure the quality and safety of their products.
Food Safety Lab
Many companies depend on the Seafood AREC for industry services such as microbial analyses to help ensure their products’ quality and safety while keeping associated costs to a minimum. New laboratories enhance support for these services. When Dickie’s Seafood developed a new frozen crab cake, Seafood AREC food quality experts brought samples into the lab to perform shelf-life studies, which led to increased marketability of the product. Now twice its previous size, the microbiology lab has been upgraded to a BSL-2 laboratory, which allows scientists to work with human pathogens and expand the bounds of their food quality and safety research.
An ancient grain with low environmental impact, sorghum and other alternative protein sources are poised to play a big role in the future of sustainable animal feeds. Researchers are at the forefront of this movement, using bioprocessing technologies to develop a recipe for a protein concentrate which will be used in SmartFeeds in partnership with the United Sorghum Checkoff Program. Specialists also provide critical engineering assistance, helping businesses increase revenue through process optimization and value-added product development.
Water drawn directly from the nearby Hampton River is pumped into the building for use in the recirculating aquaculture systems on the center’s second floor. Here, researchers can conduct fish feed trials and other studies while safely elevated above the flood zone. The new aquaculture research facilities are highly adjustable and responsive to stakeholder needs. Numerous fish, crustaceans, and bivalves are studied here. The facility has the capacity to operate freshwater, brackish, and saltwater systems.
Cellular Agriculture Lab
Researchers at the Seafood AREC help usher in the era of lab-to-table protein at a time when the agriculture industry is racing to keep up with growing demand. Cultivated meat research is creating new possibilities to fill the gap in supply. Using artificial intelligence, machine learning, 3D bioprinting equipment, and the expanded cellular agriculture facilities at the new center, lab technicians differentiate animal cells and grow muscle and fat cell types in vitro that can then be formed into anything from oyster meat to salmon filets.
Whether developing climate-smart production strategies for oyster hatcheries or testing new fish feeds, Seafood AREC research is driven and fueled by partnerships. Hybrid striped bass swim in tanks, with some equipped with new, advanced purification systems developed by Pancopia, an environmental engineering company. Aquaculture specialists test its effectiveness in treating bad taste and odor compounds that can accumulate in production systems and negatively impact marketability and profit for producers.
Working closely with aquaculture growers and seafood companies, economics and marketing researchers examine consumer preferences, business development, and regulatory obstacles faced at the farm level. Armed with sound economic data, farmers advocated on behalf of their industry and successfully demonstrated their need for vital assistance in the face of the pandemic. In a study conducted by Seafood AREC researchers, the economic contributions of the Virginia seafood industry were found to exceed $1 billion for the commonwealth in 2019.