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Ketchikan - The testers worked with thoughtful deliberation in the hushed room, inhaling deeply, observing closely, recording the results.
Research aims to boost oyster shelf life 112509 BUSINESS 6 Ketchikan Daily News Ketchikan - The testers worked with thoughtful deliberation in the hushed room, inhaling deeply, observing closely, recording the results.

Patrick Semansky/Ap File Photo

Julius Steel displays a shucked raw oyster at Pascal's Manale restaurant in New Orleans.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Story last updated at 11/25/2009 - 12:04 pm

Research aims to boost oyster shelf life

Ketchikan - The testers worked with thoughtful deliberation in the hushed room, inhaling deeply, observing closely, recording the results.

Was this a professional wine tasting at a French vineyard?

No, it was oyster research at the University of Southeast Alaska, Ketchikan Campus.

The testers were several local volunteers who'd gathered at the UAS Ketchikan's Robertson Building for the last of a series of testing sessions.

UAS Fisheries Tech Coordinator Barbara Morgan had prepared a number of test stations, each of which had two test oysters.

Some of the oysters were "control" oysters, quite fresh from the Blue Starr Oyster Co. farm at Tokeen Bay in Sea Otter Sound.

The other oysters had been harvested earlier. They'd been cooled quickly in refrigerated sea water and stored at about 33 degrees for a period of days.

The testers "sampled" all the oysters by sight and scent. The volunteers didn't actually eat the oysters, but the fundamental question of the experiment was whether they would if they could.

"It basically comes down to whether or not you would eat it," Morgan said quietly as the volunteers worked. "You can smell it and look at it and break it down into the different categories, but the bottom line is, would you eat this oyster?"

If the answer was yes, that meant that a particular method of chilling oysters could prolong their shelf-life.

That means potentially lower shipping costs for Southeast Alaska's oyster growers, allowing for barge shipment rather than transport by air.

"If you could minimize those costs, then it creates the economic benefit to the grower," said Kate Sullivan, assistant professor of fisheries technology at UAS Ketchikan. " Then, ... growers could be more successful and maybe more (people) will see it as a good source of a livelihood in the region."

The idea for the research came from Eric Wyatt of the Blue Starr Oyster Co., who approached the university about two years ago.

"Right now the only way that oysters really travel is via ... float plane service, then Alaska Airlines," Wyatt said Friday. "Although that works fine for small volumes, we need to have other options."

By air, it takes less than a week for oysters produced in the Prince of Wales Island area to reach Anchorage, one of the primary markets. The oysters typically are consumed within 10 days, said Wyatt.

Was there any strategy that could extend the live oysters' viability, perhaps getting as much as double the shelf life?

Wyatt said he couldn't find any research specific to that issue for Pacific oysters.

"What is interesting is that there has been almost no investigation of this stuff in the world," Wyatt said

Sullivan said the university was interested in participating in the research, and included a funding request for the project in a grant application to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

USDA awarded a Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service grant to the UAS Ketchikan Fisheries Technology Program for the research, which is being conducted in cooperation with Wyatt, Art King of Naukati Shellfish Nursery, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks Fishery Industrial Technology Center, according to UAS Ketchikan.

"The idea here is if you can in some way when you're processing oysters, put them through certain things (such as refrigerated sea water) and then putting them into a super-cooler," Sullivan said.

The super-cooler would be similar to putting them into a refrigerated container van for shipment.

"The freezer vans, the refrigerated vans, that's what we're looking towards," Wyatt said. "If we can keep the temperatures low until the point that they're put on a jet, or as they go into a Northland (Services barge) van, and they stay that way-controlled-then we'll be able to have a lot longer shelf life."

The research itself is separated into two parts.

One is the "organoleptic" testing conducted with the volunteers in Ketchikan this fall and earlier this year on POW.

All of the oysters came from the Wyatt's farm, in order to eliminate the variable of multiple sources.

The testers graded each of the oysters-some absolutely fresh, others of various ages, by appearance and scent. They weren't told which was which.

The goal was to see whether there was a "statistically significant difference" between the oysters that were put through the refrigerated salt water unit and those that weren't, "based on the people's perception of quality."

The other part of the experiment involves freezing the oysters and shipping them to the Fishery Industrial Technology Center in Kodiak.

There, the oysters will be tested for levels of bacteria and glycogen content, according to Morgan.

The idea is to see whether storing the oysters allows bacteria to grow, or whether the oysters' metabolism rate stays high enough to consume glycogen-the muscle sugars.

"If the oyster's using up all the muscle sugars on the way to market, it's not going to be as desirable a product," Morgan said. Between the organoleptic and lab testing, "we're hoping to be able to see if this method is to prolong the shelf life of the oyster and allow them to be able to get to market in good shape-even though they might take longer to get to market," Morgan said.

That's the central hurdle to profitability facing the oyster growers in Southeast Alaska, who likened the situation to salmon fishermen trying to ship all of their fish by air freight.

"You could see there are big bottlenecks if there's any volume," he said. "We cant get to profitability like salmon fishermen have without some degree of volume."

In addition to discovering whether the proposed method for chilling oysters actually extends their shelf life, Wyatt sees value in the university's research in furthering the industry's knowledge and perhaps eventually helping the market to accept oysters that have gone through the chilling process.

The oyster industry has a long history of doing business in a certain way, he said.

"If we have a scientific study that shows ... that these oysters are fresh, then that's one of the tools that we can use," Wyatt said.

The seven volunteer testers spent about an hour carefully gauging the oysters set out before them.

The results of their research efforts won't be known until the middle of next year.

Sullivan said the university's goal is to have the research process complete by next spring or early summer.

"There are a lot of variables that are not controllable, but we would be hoping to try to wrap it up by the summer, and have something that's useful and interesting," she said.

For at least one of the Ketchikan volunteers, Joann Flora, participating in the research steps has had an immediate result.

"I'll never be able to eat another oyster without going through this process," she said with a smile. some absolutely fresh, others of various ages, by appearance and scent. They weren't told which was which.

The goal was to see whether there was a "statistically significant difference" between the oysters that were put through the refrigerated salt water unit and those that weren't, "based on the people's perception of quality."

The other part of the experiment involves freezing the oysters and shipping them to the Fishery Industrial Technology Center in Kodiak.

There, the oysters will be tested for levels of bacteria and glycogen content, according to Morgan.

The idea is to see whether storing the oysters allows bacteria to grow, or whether the oysters' metabolism rate stays high enough to consume glycogen - the muscle sugars.

"If the oyster's using up all the muscle sugars on the way to market, it's not going to be as desirable a product," Morgan said. Between the organoleptic and lab testing, "we're hoping to be able to see if this method is to prolong the shelf life of the oyster and allow them to be able to get to market in good shape - even though they might take longer to get to market," Morgan said.

That's the central hurdle to profitability facing the oyster growers in Southeast Alaska, who likened the situation to salmon fishermen trying to ship all of their fish by air freight.

"You could see there are big bottlenecks if there's any volume," he said. "We cant get to profitability like salmon fishermen have without some degree of volume."

In addition to discovering whether the proposed method for chilling oysters actually extends their shelf life, Wyatt sees value in the university's research in furthering the industry's knowledge and perhaps eventually helping the market to accept oysters that have gone through the chilling process.

The oyster industry has a long history of doing business in a certain way, he said.

"If we have a scientific study that shows ... that these oysters are fresh, then that's one of the tools that we can use," Wyatt said.

The seven volunteer testers spent about an hour carefully gauging the oysters set out before them.

The results of their research efforts won't be known until the middle of next year.

Sullivan said the university's goal is to have the research process complete by next spring or early summer.

"There are a lot of variables that are not controllable, but we would be hoping to try to wrap it up by the summer, and have something that's useful and interesting," she said.

For at least one of the Ketchikan volunteers, Joann Flora, participating in the research steps has had an immediate result.

"I'll never be able to eat another oyster without going through this process," she said with a smile.


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