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Mystery: What Happened to Billions of Baby Oysters

Taylor Shellfish in Shelton, WA
© Barbara Kinney

by Alan Barton, Production Manager, Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery, Netarts Bay, OR

Life working in an oyster hatchery is, at its core, just like any other type of farming. We’re largely at the mercy of our environment, and each season is full of peaks and valleys.

But in the fall of 2007, we saw persistent problems that were unlike any Whiskey Creek had seen in its thirty-year history. Week after week, month after month, the baby oysters we attempted to produce wound up dead on the bottom of our tanks. No explanation. Whole crops of young oysters, the “larvae” we raise and sell to shellfish farmers up and down the West Coast, were wiped out.

What happened?

We raced to find the cause because the Pacific oyster industry depends on the larvae we produce at the Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery, one of only a handful of oyster hatcheries in the Pacific Northwest. We have dozens of farms as clients, comprising an industry worth about $270 million a year of economic activity in rural communities that employs about 3,200 people. The Pacific oyster industry depends largely on aquacultured seed from hatcheries, not solely seed from the wild, so it was essential that we figure out the hatchery’s problem, and fast.

We first suspected we had a bacterial problem, but after sanitizing every part of our hatchery, the baby oysters still weren’t surviving.

By 2008, we had even larger die-offs of up to 75% of our production. Other hatcheries in the region also began seeing losses, and we feared for the future of the industry.

And then came the ‘best worst day of my life’.

Virtually all of our larvae died in a single night, despite our valiant efforts to clean up the hatchery. This massive mortality event coincided with a huge upwelling event along the Oregon Coast, which brought seawater with a very low pH into Netarts Bay, where we’re located.

Despite the loss of a hundred thousand dollars’ worth of product in a single night, the event forced us to step back from chasing the ‘usual suspects’ of bacteria and disease, and start considering whether seawater chemistry was the root cause of our problems. At that time, I dusted off a water-stained copy of a 2008 scientific research paper from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that had sat on my desk at the hatchery for months, which documented the upwelling of very corrosive seawater along the West Coast.

From that moment on, our story began to change.

In 2009, we began collaborating with Oregon State University (OSU) scientists and later with NOAA in 2010 to look for answers. We started by monitoring water conditions in our seawater intakes. It turned out that low seawater pH levels associated with coastal upwelling were indeed the root cause of our oyster larvae die-offs.

Years of research by our NOAA and university partners showed that pollution from atmospheric carbon dioxide was to blame for “souring” the ocean waters that seasonally upwelled into our intakes, confirming that the shellfish industry’s problems were in fact caused by ocean acidification.

Alan Barton

“In a blind rage over this discovery, I sought out a list of the largest fossil fuel consumers in our community. Their reckless activities were to blame for our struggles. Imagine my shock when Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery appeared near the top of the list.”

Alan Barton
Production Manager, Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery

Oyster hatcheries, and the oyster farms we support throughout the Pacific Northwest, depend on fossil fuels for our livelihood, much like the rest of the world. We’re complicit in causing our own problems, but we also hope to be a partner helping to solve them.

Through NOAA’s help in monitoring water quality along our coastlines, we hope to speak out about the damage we’re doing to our oceans, and the impact it’s having on all of us who depend on a healthy environment for our livelihood. We believe that productive industries can coexist with a clean environment, and call on our elected leaders to do just that—lead us forward to a future where both are sustainable for generations to come.

Over the past decade, our OSU and NOAA partners have provided advice, support, and collaborations that have, for the moment, helped to save a portion of the century-old Pacific Northwest shellfish industry from bankruptcy.

Our hatchery and regional growers have collaborated closely with researchers funded by both NOAA and the Oregon and Washington state legislatures to develop and test ways to protect our shellfish crops.

One product has been a self-contained monitoring system which continuously collects research-quality water chemistry data, but can be operated by hatchery staff. Another discovery that followed better monitoring was how to buffer water with sodium carbonate to keep the shellfish seed healthy—like dosing an upset stomach with the right amount of antacid. Our industry-research collaborations have also expanded monitoring efforts along the West Coast, providing an ocean acidification “early warning system” for the entire shellfish aquaculture industry.

NOAA-supported researchers are now developing forecasts, like weather forecasts, for ocean chemistry that will allow us to time aquaculture activities in ways that will help the shellfish industry maximize output.

NOAA Ocean Acidification Program

In 2011, we were thrilled when the NOAA Ocean Acidification Program (OAP) began with bipartisan Congressional support after my industry colleagues and community leaders urged our representatives to fund ocean acidification research. Over the past six years Congress has increased its investment for NOAA OAP from $6 million to $10.5 million as we uncover more and more science that shows we need to act quickly and help businesses adapt and survive. That’s a tiny investment—less than 4% of the annual value of the Pacific Northwest shellfish industry—with some huge impacts.

We have continued to support healthy funding levels for the program because it’s a clear example of how good science and monitoring can be used to protect the livelihoods of hard-working Americans. No one wants to find that their livelihoods have disappeared overnight.

The bottom line

This is what NOAA’s OAP is helping us safeguard: our future. Shellfish aquaculture creates good jobs in rural areas that have close ties to the ocean, where good employment is sometimes tough to find. We are proud to work with NOAA and other government scientists. And we are counting on Congress to help us sustain our communities by continuing to fund NOAA’s ocean acidification work.

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