Pacific Oyster Mortality Syndrome (POMS) is a disease harmless to humans but lethal to oysters causing up to 90 per cent mortality in a crop of millions within days. The first POMS outbreak was see in 2007 in France which nearly wiped out the oyster industry and in 2010, New Zealand's Pacific Oysters succumbed to the virus that causes POMS, OsHV-1. Eight months after that POMS entered Botany Bay's Georges River in Australia. Again, huge losses were seen at Pacific Oyster farms.
By 2013, POMS had spread to a second NSW estuary, the Hawkesbury River; known for large production of oysters in NSW. The disease killed over 10 million oysters over three days. Then, in January 2016, POMS made it way to Southern Tasmanian waters. It was considered to be an unlikely destination for POMS in Australia as the disease preference for water temperatures above 21-22°C. The Tasmanian industry lost 50 employees and 60% of the state's growing areas were affected by it.
Industry survival lay in the hands of a genetic program set up by the industry own Australian Seafood Industries (ASI). Prior to POMS reaching New Zealand, ASI had been working closely with CSIRO and the NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) on genetic improvement of Pacific Oysters through selective breeding. Its research was focused on creating larger and robust Pacific Oysters, but the direction quickly changed once POMS attacked.
The focus was to create a POMS resistant oyster as well as maintaining genetic improvements for traits of key importance to the Pacific Oyster industry.
After the POMS breakout in Georges River, oysters from ASI's 80 distinct family 'lines' were relocated from clean locations to the 'diseased' estuary to test the genetic difference in POMS survival. NSW DPI ran field trials and CSIRO analysed survival data for the different genetic lines. CSIRO found that there was a strong genetic basis for POMS survival.
Since then, ASI has been in partnership with NSW DPI and CSIRO in a genetic breeding program for POMS resistance. The breeding program is about accumulating or increasing the frequency of those genes with each new generation. The target is to create an overall level of POMS resistance with the commercial oyster population that the Pacific Industry could work with.
Currently ASI is in its sixth generation of POMS selective breeding. Some of the elite performing lines (one year old animals) have shown even higher levels of resistance, up to 80-90 per cent. However, the challenge for ASI is that the mortality rates of 2 - 3 month old spat are still much higher than those for one year old stock. ASI's current research target is to have a POMS resistant Pacific Oyster spat with average survival of >80% (for diploids at 2 - 3 months) to a POMS outbreak available to all Australian Oyster farmers by 2019.
Since 2000, our operations have been expanded to include the production of 80 family lines in 2016 in Tasmania and 19 separate family lines in South Australia, with multiple trial sites in New South Wales. See a full list of our sites here.
Our work is cyclical. It consists of (1) selecting broodstock based on scientific data (i.e. shell length, width and weight, total weight, meat composition and disease resistance); (2) spawning the selected animals; (3) housing them in nursery after settling has occurred; (4) sending them to our trial sites (as below); (5) incrementally collecting data over a growth period; (5) sending the data to specialised shellfish geneticists to create "estimated breeding values" based on the traits describes in 1, and; (6) repeating the cycle for the next generation of oysters.