Will oyster heartbeats set pace for P.E.I.’s aquaculture industry?

Posted on December 01, 2021 | By Alec Bruce | 0 Comments

If you want to know how an oyster is doing planted on the ocean floor, you can’t very well ask it how it’s feeling. But if you’re Dr. Ali Ahmadi, you can measure its heartbeat—and that could soon be invaluable to Prince Edward Island’s multi-million-dollar aquaculture industry in a climate-changing world.

Following the time-tested principle that an organism’s heartbeat indicates its overall health, Ahmadi—a professor of engineering at the University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI) —is adapting existing cardiac monitoring technology to the bivalves. This would provide shellfish farmers with better data for sustaining, even increasing, overall yields in their oyster grow-out operations.


Dr. Ali Ahmadi, a professor of engineering at the University of Prince Edward Island (Supplied Photo)


“There is no doubt that there is a shifting ecosystem, particularly related to aquaculture, around us,” he says, noting that an oyster’s health is affected by the temperature, salinity, and oxygenation of its watery environment. “But, there’s very little information about its well-being in relation to climate change. This will give us a tool for understanding that correlation.”

The noninvasive monitor—which currently works in laboratory settings—attaches to the shell and records vibrations from the animal’s tiny heart. Over time, with enough data, a picture emerges of its responses to various environmental stresses. This, in turn, provides scientists and decision-makers with real-time intelligence on the effects of climate change and farmers with key information for sustainably optimizing local growing conditions.

Ahmadi says his work has already attracted attention from an Island industry that annually produces more than $12.5 million worth of cultured oysters for export to the United States, where consumers increasingly regard them as safe and environmentally responsible menu items. “Obviously … numerous farmers and some of the agricultural communities on Prince Edward Island … are very interested.”

But, he adds, the technology isn’t yet ready for its closeup. “So far, our tests have been in the lab and it’s a completely different environment there. We want to do long-term monitoring, leave these sensors in the oysters and collect more data. [Meanwhile], we’re making the system robust for deployment in the field, something that can communicate data wirelessly to a control center off the water and be controlled remotely.”

Still, his peers think he’s on to something. The Ocean Frontier Institute just gave him one of its Seed Grants. This collaboration between Dalhousie University, the University of Prince Edward Island and Memorial University sponsors research that, among other things, “improves the potential for fisheries and aquaculture industries to meet global seafood demand in a sustainable manner.”

Says Ahmadi, who grew up near the Caspian Sea in northern Iran where fishing was part of his tradition: “To me, this has two angles. I want the industry to do great and continue to do great. I also want to make sure that this tool is part of a mitigation strategy that doesn’t lead to more shifting of ecosystems.”

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