Editor’s note: This is the latest in a special WRAL TechWire series reported by Allan Maurer about the emerging tech and life science ecosystem driving development across eastern North Carolina.

WILMINGTON — Sturgeon caviar is the very definition of a classy and often pricey delicacy, usually imported, like 90 percent of seafood consumed in the United States.. Now it’s being farmed at North Carolina advanced technology aquaculture sites. Marine biotech is a big deal on the East Coast, with extensive university research facilities and evolving and innovative startups that offer advances in seafood production, medical advances, and even homeland security solutions.

The Marine Bio-Technology Center for Innovation, MBCOI{{/a}, formed in 2012 with a $2.5 million grant from the NC Biotechnology Center, is a linchpin supporting continuing development of marine innovations in the state. Headquartered at the University of North Carolina Campus at Wilmington, it also has space in an NC State University facility at Morehead City and at the First Flight Venture Center in Research Triangle Park.

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Deborah A. Mosca, Ph.D., CEO and chair of MBOIC, tells WRAL Techwire the Center combines a regional, national, and international focus on marine biotechnologies.

It has racked up a significant number of achievements since. Those include inking more than 80 formal agreements with partners, connecting more than 100 stakeholders to funding, partners, and collaborators, and inventorying the state’s marine biotech assets. And those barely sketch its accomplishments.

“We’re committed to our main mission of developing marine resources to stimulate economic development in NC, one entrepreneur at a time or on a larger scale,” Mosca says.

Aquaculture is the future

The Marshallberg Farm{{/a}, with its caviar and smoke Sturgeon farms, is one example. Marshallberg Farm owns and operates two Russian sturgeon farms in North Carolina: Marshallberg Farm on the central coast, and LaPaz in the mountains, about 300 miles apart.

Sturgeon are prehistoric survivors of the ice age, and among the largest fresh water fish in the world. Some grow to more than 2,000 pounds. Today, caviar produced from aquaculture exceeds that from wild fish. Marshallberg Farm uses advanced technologies that evade many of the problems of farmed fish.

“Aquaculture is the future,” says Mosca. “We’re committed to growing aquaculture in the state.”

I.J. Won, the entrepreneur who established Marshallberg Farm is also promoting the idea of establishing an Aquaculture Technology Park (ATP). It would bring together companies in R&D, testing and demonstration of aquaculture technologies and practices.

The proposal makes a strong case for such a venture, citing the U.S. seafood trade deficit of about $14 billion annually (we import 90 percent of our seafood); the health benefits of consuming seafood; and forecasts that aquaculture is projected to be one of the fastest growing industries worth $1.3 trillion a year by 2030 (UN publication, “Fish to 2030”).

ATP’s proposed location is Won’s Marshallberg Farm, located approximately 12 miles from Morehead City/Beaufort on the Central NC coast.

The Morehead City/Beaufort area already boasts about 800 people engaged in marine science, including those at Duke Marine Lab, NCSU Center for Marine Science and Technology (CMAST), UNC Institute of Marine Science (IMS), NOAA, NC Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF), and the aquaculture program at Carteret Community College. All would participate in the venture.

Recovering an oyster industry

The farm already also hosts the NCSU Marine Aquaculture Research Center (MARC), which conducts research on wastewater treatment and the culture of striped bass, blue crabs, and other species. Underground Farm, a community supported agriculture (CSA) facility, also within the farm, utilizes nutrient waste from the fish farm to grow vegetables.

“We’re working with a number of entities to help find funding for the ATP,” Mosca said. The proposal, points out nothing like it exists now on the East Coast, and in a few decades it could be to the NC coast what Research Triangle Park is to the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area, supported by both major companies and entrepreneurs.

Another effort high on the MBCOI list is supporting the NC oyster industry, which Mosca said “Has fallen terribly behind neighboring states like Virginia, even though we used to be significantly ahead.”

MBCOI is working with UCW’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship on that. Mosca and CIE Director Diane Durance worked together to cosponsor the 2017 Fish 2.0 South Atlantic and Gulf Coast Shellfish/Crustacean Workshop, among other efforts.

NC poised to be the NAPA Valley for oysters

Entrepreneurs are at work there, too.The Sandbar Oyster Co. based in Morehead City won a $250,000 NC Idea grant. Founded by Niels Lindquist, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor and marine scientist, and David “Clammerhead” Cessna, a commercial shellfish harvester, Sandbar Oyster Company develops underwater surfaces that attract oysters..

Placed along intertidal sandbars, they not only provide a substrate that attracts and later sheds oysters, the surface can be moved to reef sites that protect shorelines. “They’re getting a lot of attention for what they’re trying to do.” Anticipated sea level rise could devastate the coastline,” she notes, and these would provide an ecosystem to fill the shoreline with sand, silt and vegetation.”

Not only that, the oysters Sandbar is growing are tasty critters. “I’ve tasted them and NC is poised to become the NAPA Valley for oysters.”

In yet another major program, MBCOI is working with a “Novel biogenomics platform” from a “leading genomics company in the biodefense area,” to apply its analysis to areas other than detecting biothreats and disease spread.

“A lot of aquaculture is at risk from a whole host of diseases,” Mosca said. “We’re working to finalize testing for disease fingerprints.” Those would determine the strain, geographic location, species, and help pinpoint outbreaks of diseases.

The technology might also be used to provide cross-border food security. “If you’re bringing in seafood, there are so many steps in the supply chain. Hatcheries, fingerlings, nurseries, input from feed.” MBCOI is seeking a grant to fund the research.