The newly constructed Virginia Seafood Agricultural Research and Extension Center (AREC) is more than just a building — the new $10 million complex in Hampton signals a reaffirmation of a 47-year-old commitment to supporting the future of the seafood industry in Virginia and beyond.

"We're here to serve the Virginia seafood industry, and working to identify and respond to emerging needs and opportunities has always been the primary driver," said Michael Schwarz, director of the Virginia Seafood AREC, whose growing team recently moved into the location at 15 Rudd Lane. "The enhanced capacity of this new building will allow us to grow programs in ways that will benefit our stakeholders for years to come." 

The 22,224-square-foot research facility is equipped with a classroom, research laboratories, and state-of-the-art aquaculture facilities to keep pace with the center's programs working with industry and research partners to respond to emerging needs and provide training, technical assistance, and multidisciplinary research to ensure sustainable and competitive fisheries and aquaculture sectors.

"Our fisheries and aquaculture industries were very supportive at the local, state, and federal levels to help demonstrate the need for a new, improved, larger, and resilient seafood AREC," Schwarz said. "We are here due to the kindness and support from numerous agencies and stakeholders."

Funding for the new research facility came from multiple sources, including the building owner, the Virginia Tech Foundation, the Commonwealth of Virginia, the City of Hampton, and a grant issued by the Economic Development Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce. The building was designed by RRMM Architects and constructed by E.T. Gresham Company. The facility's grand opening celebration with stakeholders and supporters is scheduled for late November. The Virginia Tech Board of Visitors recently visited the site as well as the nearby Hampton Roads AREC.

New and upgraded facility features include food processing, microbiological, and cell culture laboratories, upgraded aquaculture and fisheries research facilities, water chemistry labs, a classroom and training space, and additional workstations and accommodations for visiting faculty, students, and collaborators.

The Virginia Seafood AREC has been a fixture on the working waterfront in Hampton since 1975. Before this summer, the AREC was housed in a former oyster and crab processing facility on an adjacent lot. The building was retrofitted to function as a provisional microbiology laboratory, training classroom, and aquaculture research and development space

"The Virginia Seafood Agricultural Research and Extension Center has been a crucial resource in seafood safety and development of new products," said Steven Lynch, senior business development manager with the City of Hampton. "The new advanced center will greatly expand those capabilities."

The location in Hampton positions the Virginia Seafood AREC at the heart of the Virginia seafood industry, tucked between two multigenerational seafood companies, including one of the largest East Coast seafood distributors — L.D. Amory & Co.

"They're neighbors we can turn to for expert guidance in everything from validation tests and employee training to HACCP [Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point] planning and the latest market research," said Meade Amory, owner of Amory's Seafood. "We've been in business in Hampton since the 1930s, and Virginia Tech has helped us keep our business and the whole industry viable in an increasingly competitive global market."

A new seafood technologies/processing lab will support seafood processing, validation, and engineering programming to help stakeholders adapt to evolving regulatory environments while maintaining economic competitiveness with value-added product development.

"Someone may seek our help to go develop value-added products or find ways to streamline production and processing, and a big part of that is under the college's new Center for Advanced Innovation in Agriculture," Schwarz said. "There are a lot of emerging technologies for automation, processing, and packaging, so we help to develop or optimize some of those to make our industries more sustainable, both environmentally and economically."

Program efforts fall under the SmartFarm Innovation Network and focus on controlled environment agriculture, new seafood frontiers, SmartFeeds, robotics, traceability, blockchain, and big data management. Center faculty further assist with economic viability by helping stakeholders navigate dynamic regulatory environments and assessing the cost of implementing new technologies across the spectrum of the seafood supply chain. 

"It can be difficult for companies to maintain economic competitiveness, particularly in global marketplaces and with imports," said Jonathan van Senten, assistant director at the Virginia Seafood AREC and assistant professor in the Virginia Tech Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics.

Additional focus areas include sustainable fisheries and aquaculture; food quality, safety, and consumer education; and sustainable food production systems and alternative proteins.

Blue crabs in baskets on store shelves.
Chesapeake Bay blue crabs for sale at a seafood market in Hampton. Photo by Keri Rouse for Virginia Tech.

While retrofitting an old processing facility to accommodate researchers, visiting students, and creatures ranging from striped bass to ornamental shrimp came with many unique challenges, Schwarz said none were as disruptive as the flooding experienced at the previous facility. High tides and significant storm events would leave more than the center's tanks filled with water.

"The old AREC at 102 S. King St. would flood on a regular basis, halting our work and flooding the front office, our aquaculture research facilities with sensitive equipment, and our microbiology lab, which supports the industry," Schwarz said.

The completion of the new building, which involved diligence and support from multiple individuals and parties and careful planning to meet the unique needs of the researchers, addressed those shortcomings.

Masonry-wrapped steel columns supported on driven pile foundations elevate the building to a level to protect research spaces and sensitive equipment on the second and third floors from flood events. 

The area beneath the elevated floors functions as a 15-space parking garage. Tanks located behind the building store untreated water drawn directly from the Hampton River. The water is pumped above for use in the recirculating aquaculture systems on the center's second floor, where wet lab spaces include food/bioprocessing laboratories and aquaculture research facilities where numerous fish, crustaceans, and bivalves are studied.

Recognized as a center of excellence for live feeds and hatchery production technologies, the center's aquaculture research facilities are highly adjustable with the capacity to operate freshwater, brackish, and saltwater systems. The new facility was designed to be accredited by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care to reflect Virginia Tech's commitment to responsible animal care and use in research.

Faculty, staff, and students have moved into the new space and are working to prepare the new aquaculture systems for the hundreds of fish and many times more gallons of water soon to be introduced to the mix.

The top floor of the three-story facility includes a boardroom overlooking the Hampton River, faculty offices, a bunk suite for visiting researchers, a 24-person multipurpose classroom to feature cooking demonstrations and HACCP food safety training sessions, and a BSL-2 Microbiology Lab.

In 2021, center Extension specialists worked with Virginia Sea Grant to provide microbial analyses for 72 companies to determine the shelf-life length and quality of seafood products. Analyses helped companies to ensure the quality and safety of their products while keeping associated costs to a minimum.

"We had a microbiology lab in the old building for industry support," Schwarz said. "Now twice its previous size, the space was upgraded to a BSL-2 laboratory, which will allow us to work with human pathogens, enhancing food quality and safety."

This new infrastructure will further strengthen the center's existing array of business, public, and private partnerships, as well as the institutional research partners whose collaboration aims to equip the seafood and aquaculture industries with the information they need to thrive.

Lynch said the seafood and seafood processing industries have energized the city's coastline over centuries and rebuilt Hampton's economy in the post-Civil War era. For nearly 50 years, the Virginia Seafood AREC has sat at the heart of that industry. The past facility, under the new ownership of the City of Hampton, will be demolished as part of a larger development effort to revitalize Hampton and increase public access to the waterfront.

With the establishment of the new center, it will continue to meet the needs of watermen, Chesapeake Bay crabbers, aquaculturists, and seafood distributors for decades to come.

"This new facility, manned with talented researchers and technicians, will continue to aid the advancement of the local, national and international seafood industry and support its stakeholders," Lynch said.

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