Oysters at Risk From Ocean Acidification, as Are Farmer Livelihoods | Commentary

Posted September 9, 2013 at 3:16pm

The recent news about illnesses related to eating raw oysters is having big impacts on our nation’s shellfish farmers. It is a prime example of how a good year can quickly take an unexpected turn in the opposite direction. Shellfish farmers around the nation confront some of the same threats that land farmers face — unfavorable weather, predators, disease and varying market conditions — any one of which can ruin the harvest for the year.

A relatively new threat to our industry — ocean acidification — has brought us to Washington to meet with our members of Congress. We will share with them our firsthand experience with acidification, which has already negatively affected growers on the West Coast, and, if not addressed, promises to get worse.

This may come as a surprise since shellfish are enjoying something of a renaissance. However, our community is concerned that our livelihoods could be in jeopardy if ocean acidification is not addressed by our nation’s lawmakers.

As most people are now aware, acidification happens when carbon emissions are absorbed by the ocean, turning it more acidic. In acidified waters it becomes harder for oysters, clams, mussels, corals and other marine animals to build their shells and skeletons. Shells become thinner and weaker or, in some cases, larvae are unable to grow at all.

While numerous recent studies have examined the effects of acidification on marine life, we still have lots of uncertainty about how this is going to turn out. When it comes to shellfish, however, we now know that acidified seawater is harmful — and it doesn’t take a Ph.D. to see that these impacts are going to get worse.

A few years ago, West Coast oyster hatcheries began experiencing devastating losses of 50 to 80 percent of their production because of increasingly corrosive water. Thanks to some quick-thinking scientists and congressional leaders, funding was made available to develop monitoring systems that enabled the West Coast growers to better respond to acidification, keeping their business intact.

The impact of acidification is showing up first on the West Coast because of ocean circulation patterns. But we know that the problem is global and East Coast growers are bracing for similar challenges.

We’ll feel a bit like proverbial fish out of water as we walk the halls of congressional office buildings, but we want to inform lawmakers of this very real and very serious threat to the seafood industry and the consequences of inaction. Ocean acidification affects not only shellfish but also the jobs and economic activity generated by our community.

In Washington state alone, the shellfish industry brings in $272 million annually and employs more than 3,200 people. On the East Coast, there are more than 1,000 farms that raise mussels, clams and oysters. In just one state — Maine — landings from lobsters and shellfish total $285 million.

Shellfish also provide vital ecosystem services to bays and estuaries by filtering their water and providing essential habitat for juvenile fish. As we have seen in the Chesapeake Bay, when oyster populations decline, so does the health of the entire ecosystem.

We realize that ocean acidification is a new reality for our industry, so we need to better understand how to deal with it. The good news is that states are beginning to address this issue where they can.

In late August, California announced the formation of a West Coast science panel that builds on the efforts of Washington state to respond to ocean acidification. In June, the Maine Legislature passed a resolution identifying acidification as a major threat to the state’s culture, economy and way of life.

This week, the XPRIZE Foundation announced a new prize to come up with better, cheaper, more accessible sensors to monitor acidification, which will greatly assist the states that want to implement these systems to assist their shellfish growers.

When we meet with our senators and representatives, we will urge them to fully fund the budget for research under the Federal Ocean Acidification Research and Monitoring Act. In the past, our government has demonstrated that an effective process can be employed to overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges by using research, science and innovation. We are hopeful that as we depart for our separate coasts, our efforts will have catalyzed this process, helping to ensure that your dinner plate will always have a half shell.

Margaret Pilaro Barrette is executive director of the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association. Bob Rheault is executive director of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association.