MILFORD — The annual open house at the NOAA Milford Laboratory will have to be online this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But protecting public health is something the lab has been doing since its founding in 1931.

The lab, where teams of scientists research fisheries, aquaculture, and the health of Long Island Sound, is part of Northeast Fisheries Science Center, which is the research arm of NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Fisheries.

It’s a Federal research facility focused on shellfish aquaculture and the environment of Long Island Sound.

“We are part of a government agency. We provide a free service,” said Kristen Jabanoski, a communications specialist at the Milford lab.

The lab was established to help Connecticut oyster industry’s accessible harvest of oysters at a time when the oyster population in Long Island Sound was declining, Jabanoski said.

When NOAA was formed in 1970, the Milford lab became part of it.

Among the scientific discoveries to have originated locally is The Milford Method, which is a method of rearing or raising young shellfish from larvae. The Milford Method is still used widely around the world, according to Jabanoski.

Inside the lab is a touch tank featuring hermit crabs and several species of fish native to the Sound.

“It’s a way that people can touch the animals and learn about them,” Jabanoski said. “It’s fun for families.”

About 20 Federal research scientists work at the lab. There are also students and post-doctoral scholars who come through it regularly, although currently much of the outside research is being done remotely. Many of the scientists publish the research they conduct at the lab in scientific journals.

Scientists in the lab currently are studying climate change and how the changing pH of the ocean will impact shellfish.

Prior to the pandemic, the lab regularly participated in outreach events like the Milford Oyster Festival. Educators from the lab also made school visits.

Every year, the lab holds a two-day annual open house for the general public to see the aquacultures and learn about the different experiments happening in the lab. This year, due to the pandemic, the open house will be converted to a virtual event. More information will be announced on the laboratory website in the coming weeks.

A big focus for the lab, according to Jabanoski, is shellfish aquaculture, such as oysters, clams, and mussels. Shellfish aquaculture is a large industry in the state and supports a lot of its economic activity, she said.

“The goal [of the lab] is to make sure people understand the science and understand shellfish aquaculture,” she said, adding the lab was founded to support the shellfish aquaculture industry with science. Aside from being a popular dish to eat, she said shellfish provide a lot of benefits such as cleaning the water as they filter feed.

“We hear a lot about excess nutrients going into the water, and shellfish soak up a lot of those nutrients, so they help improve our water quality and water clarity in Long Island Sound,” she said. Additionally, shellfish provide habitat for many other species.

She said there are both economic and environmental benefits that studying shellfish can provide, such as knowing how they are impacted by environmental change.

Also, the lab has over 200 different strains of phytoplankton, which is an important part of the diet for shellfish, particularly young animals.

As of Aug. 25, the Milford Laboratory had sent out approximately 385 phytoplankton cultures to their stakeholders for the current year.

“It’s a baby food for them,” Jabanoski said.

A service the lab provides to growers and hatchery owners is to provide cultures, which are mailed out free all over the country. Milford experts also help answer questions from other hatcheries.

“We have a hatchery manager and a new culture curator. Their expertise is often called upon,” Jabanoski said.

For more information, visit the NOAA Milford Laboratory online or call 203-882-6500.

sfox@milfordmirror.com