Mississippi State is announcing plans to build the Northern Gulf Aquatic Food Research Center—a $3 million facility funded through the state’s RESTORE Act and the first of its kind on the coast providing seafood industry safety testing and quality assurance.
The university is receiving the funding as one of 15 restoration projects recently announced by Gov. Phil Bryant at the annual Mississippi Restoration Summit hosted by the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality. Once implemented, the projects add more than $53 million to the current tally of $560 million already being spent on recovery projects following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Wes Burger, associate director of the university’s Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, said the new analytical laboratory on MAFES property in Pascagoula is part of a three-phase MSU project to help rebuild and strengthen the Northern Gulf region’s seafood industry and economy.
“The Northern Gulf Aquatic Food Research Center is an opportunity for MSU and the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station to play a key role in this revitalization, not just in Mississippi, but for the entire Northern Gulf region when it comes to aquatic food safety, processing and product development. We seek to support the industry, see the natural resource restored and bring consumers back to the table,” Burger said.
He said that a number of natural and manmade catastrophic events in the Northern Gulf region over the last decade and a half, including Hurricane Katrina, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and, most recently, the Bonnet Carré spillway diversion, have contributed to declines in the seafood industry and have had dramatic impacts on the coastal economy.
“Additionally, these events affect consumer perceptions about safety and quality of seafood coming out of the Northern Gulf. It’s critically important that we have in place the resources and facilities to conduct real-time quality assurance for Gulf Coast seafood products so that consumers are confident in the food they are purchasing,” Burger said.
A MAFES research unit, the new center will build effective teams of scientists from among the MSU system and other Northern Gulf region universities; federal entities including the Food and Drug Administration, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Agricultural Research Service of the Department of Agriculture; state departments of Marine Resources and Health; and the private sector.
Intended to become a national and international center for the utilization of Northern Gulf seafoods, it also will help the state’s catfish producers, who manage 36,100 freshwater pond acres, with a total production value of $164 million in 2018.
Current funding will provide for phase one, which includes construction of the facility that comprises a biosafety laboratory for pathogen and toxin testing and an analytical chemistry laboratory for measuring chemical residues in water and aquatic food products. Phase two will consist of a commercially-equipped pilot plant for processing and shelf life research and product development. Phase three includes incubator space to work in partnership with the industry to transfer technology, developed in the safety and pilot plants, to small businesses on the Gulf Coast.
“This center will give us the ability to provide rapid testing to ensure both seafood and water quality, giving assurance to consumers,” said James Henderson, professor and head of the university’s Coastal Research and Extension Center located in Biloxi. “Previously, this type of testing has been exported outside of the state.”
Henderson, who is overseeing the project, also noted that phase two will increase value-added processing capabilities for the state’s fisheries.
“The center will help test and develop new value-added seafood products consumers desire—both in the U.S. or abroad—and create economic opportunity for both our existing fisheries and potential new industry,” Henderson said. “As seafood processers look to expand or create new investments, Mississippi State will further help attract these enterprises by being here to assist them in quality assurance, testing and development of new products.”