By: Kathryn Batstone-Boyd, Ben Stone, and Karina Ordell, OPB
NETARTS BAY, Ore. — Mark Wiegardt steps slowly through knee-high water, pausing over some jagged lumps of brown-gray shells with a bent flat-head screwdriver.
He picks up a clump of oysters and rests it on his thigh, stabbing and wrenching until the shellfish crack apart.
The creatures inside are more valuable than ever, so Wiegardt tries his best to make them look nice by bashing off the sharp edges.
Oysters are biologically simple. But nothing is simple about the water in which they live. The Pacific Northwest’s ocean chemistry is changing. A phenomenon known as ocean acidification has shocked the Northwest oyster industry, causing farmers and hatchery owners to modify decades-old ways of cultivating oysters and to reconsider the murky future of their industry.
“Our business has definitely been altered by this changing water chemistry,” Weigardt said.
He understands the concern surrounding ocean acidification better than almost anyone. Wiegardt’s a fourth-generation oyster farmer and one of the managers of Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery in Netarts Bay, Oregon.
Like many hatcheries on the West Coast, Whiskey Creek grows Pacific oysters — a Japanese species introduced to America in the early 1900s. Farmers grow oysters in enclosed waters connected to the ocean, known as estuaries. But the coastal waters of the Northwest are too cold for Pacific oysters to spawn naturally. So, oyster seed suppliers like Whiskey Creek act as incubators.
Whiskey Creek houses huge vats of seawater that serve as swimming pools for young oyster larvae to develop. When the larvae are mature enough, the hatchery packs them in balls of paper towels before sending them to independent oyster farmers along the coast.
The farmers take the oyster “seed” to their nurseries and dump it into giant tanks, where the larvae “set” onto vacant oyster shells. When they are mature enough, the farmers remove the shellfish from the tanks and chuck them into the bay. The oysters will stay here for a couple years, fattening up by filtering algae and other nutrients out of the water. Eventually, the farmers will return and gather their harvest so the full-grown oysters can be bagged and sold.
Why Are The Larvae Failing?
In the late summer of 2007, the oyster larvae at Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery didn’t make it to the bay. Without warning, the larvae began to fail by the millions inside the vats.
“Everything was dying. The larvae were pink. Every larva in the place was not feeding,” said Sue Cudd, owner of Whiskey Creek.
Whiskey Creek couldn’t supply its customers with seed. No one could understand why the larvae were dying.
“The changes were so dramatic, we thought there was a very strong possibility that we were going to go out of business,” Wiegardt said.
A year after the first die-offs, Whiskey Creek engineer Alan Barton scrambled for clues explaining why Whiskey Creek’s methods were suddenly not working. Barton discovered that an upwelling of ocean water with unusually high acidity was corroding the oysters’ shells, causing the larvae to die while trying to form an exoskeleton. He was eventually able to stem the die-offs by adapting simple aquarium chemistry to equalize the pH in Whiskey Creek’s tanks.
Since then, Whiskey Creek has learned to sustain healthy brown larvae in its vat water with a system that constantly buffers the water. However, the effectiveness of buffer chemicals is limited to hatchery tubs.
The die-offs made 2007 a defining year for West Coast oyster farmers.
Hedging Bets In Hawaii
Kathleen Nisbet, a manager of Goose Point Oyster Company in Willapa Bay, saw the die-offs as a signal to change. In 2009, Goose Point began constructing its first oyster hatchery in Hilo, Hawaii, in order to lessen its dependence on hatcheries like Whiskey Creek, which draw water from the Northwestern tides. Though the Nisbets had long done business with Whiskey Creek, and still do, they felt they had to set themselves apart geographically to insulate their business from the acidic waters.
“I employ 70 employees; I’m responsible for 70 families. That’s a big deal to me,” Nisbet said. “I can’t just say, ‘We’ll figure it out.’ I’ve got people I have to feed and it was our responsibility to look at what we needed to do.”
But even as one crisis seems resolved, another one looms. There’s a new concern that mature oysters may soon be at risk. Roberto Quintana, an engineer at Ekone Oyster Company on Washington’s Willapa Bay, has begun to see health defects in oysters out in the bay that he can’t correlate with natural events.
“Last year was when I first heard some of the old-timers from around here who were like, ‘We don’t know what the hell happened,’” Quintana said.
There is no consensus on what to do if water chemistry in the bays turns inhospitable for mature oysters. Quintana says there are a few options: genetically engineer a more hardy oyster species; try to apply buffer chemicals directly into the bays; or perhaps just give oysters more time in their safe nursery tanks.
Can The Oyster Industry Survive?
But for some, the thought of such dramatic changes to old farming techniques makes them question the long-term survival of the Northwest oyster industry.
“Those are big, philosophical questions,” Jambor said. “Do you get out of this business because you think it’s going to go down in 30 years? I don’t know.”
Whiskey Creek’s Wiegardt, however, is not about to idly watch the Northwest oyster industry go down in his lifetime. In the last few years, he has travelled many times with other Northwest shellfish producers to Washington, D.C., to tell their stories and ask lawmakers to pay for monitoring stations that would measure the water’s acidity.
“Farmers in general, I think we all like to complain a little more than we should,” he said. “[But] any time you know a little bit about something that may have a huge impact, you need to communicate that.”
Wiegardt thinks he has been well received in the Capitol, and he accepts these trips as his responsibility to the small community of Northwestern oyster farmers who know each other by first name.
“It’s not all doom and gloom,” Wiegardt said. “We’re solving a problem here as we speak.”
Kathryn Batstone-Boyd, Karina Ordell and Ben Stone are students in the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication. This report was produced as a class project. Video produced by Batstone-Boyd; photography by Ordell; article written by Stone.
If it’s true that oysters are aphrodisiacs, then BP has killed the mood.
Louisiana’s oyster season opened last week, but thanks to the mess that still lingers after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, there aren’t many oysters around.
“We can’t find any production out there yet,” Brad Robin, a commercial fisherman and Louisiana Oyster Task Force member, told Al Jazeera. “There is no life out there.” Many of Louisiana’s oyster harvest areas are “dead or mostly dead,” he says.
In Mississippi, fishing boats that used to catch 30 sacks of oysters a day are returning to docks in the evenings with fewer than half a dozen sacks aboard.
It’s not just oysters. The entire fishing industry is being hit, with catches down and shrimp and shellfish being discovered with disgusting deformities. One seafood business owner told Al Jazeera that his revenue was down 85 percent compared with the period before the spill. From the article:
“I’ve seen a lot of change since the spill,” [Hernando Beach Seafood co-owner Kathy] Birren told Al Jazeera. “Our stone crab harvest has dropped off and not come back; the numbers are way lower. Typically you’ll see some good crabbing somewhere along the west coast of Florida, but this last year we’ve had problems everywhere.”
Birren said the problems are not just with the crabs. “We’ve also had our grouper fishing down since the spill,” she added. “We’ve seen fish with tar balls in their stomachs from as far down as the Florida Keys. We had a grouper with tar balls in its stomach last month. Overall, everything is down.”
According to Birren, many fishermen in her area are giving up. “People are dropping out of the fishing business, and selling out cheap because they have to. I’m in west-central Florida, but fishermen all the way down to Key West are struggling to make it. I look at my son’s future, as he’s just getting into the business, and we’re worried.”
Ecosystem recovery is a slow process. Ed Cake, an oceanographer and marine biologist, points out that oysters still have not returned to some of the areas affected by a 1979 oil well blowout in the Gulf. He thinks recovery from the BP disaster will take decades.
A Washington family opens a hatchery in Hawaii to escape lethal waters.
Story by Craig Welch, Photographs by Steve Ringman, Source: Seattle Times
HILO, Hawaii — It appears at the end of a palm tree-lined drive, not far from piles of hardened black lava: the newest addition to the Northwest’s famed oyster industry.
Half an ocean from Seattle, on a green patch of island below a tropical volcano, a Washington state oyster family built a 20,000-square-foot shellfish hatchery.
Ocean acidification left the Nisbet family no choice.
Carbon dioxide from fossil-fuel emissions had turned seawater in Willapa Bay along Washington’s coast so lethal that slippery young Pacific oysters stopped growing. The same corrosive ocean water got sucked into an Oregon hatchery and routinely killed larvae the family bought as oyster seed.
So the Nisbets became the closest thing the world has seen to ocean-acidification refugees. They took out loans and spent $1 million and moved half their production 3,000 miles away.
“I was afraid for everything we’d built,” Goose Point Oyster Co. founder Dave Nisbet said of the hatchery, which opened last year. “We had to do something. We had to figure this thing out, or we’d be out of business.”
Oysters started dying by the billions along the Northwest coast in 2005, and have been struggling ever since. When scientists cautiously linked the deaths to plummeting ocean pH in 2008 and 2009, few outside the West Coast’s $110 million industry believed it.
Oysters from the Nisbets’ Hawaii hatchery are almost ready to be shipped to Willapa Bay and planted. When corrosive water off Washington rises to the surface, many oysters die before reaching this age.
Ed Jones, manager at the Taylor Shellfish Hatchery in Hood Canal’s Dabob Bay, pries open an oyster. Ocean acidification is believed to have killed billions of oysters in Northwest waters since 2005.
By the time scientists confirmed it early last year, the region’s several hundred oyster growers had become a global harbinger — the first tangible sign anywhere in the world that ocean acidification already was walloping marine life and hurting people.
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Worried oystermen testified before Congress. A few hit the road to speak at science conferences. Journalists visited the tidelands from Australia, Europe and Korea. Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire established a task force of ocean acidification experts, who sought ways to fight this global problem locally.
But the eight years of turmoil the Nisbet family endured trying to outrun their corroding tides offered them a unique perch from which to view debate over CO2 emissions.
And the world’s earliest victims of shifting ocean chemistry fear humanity still doesn’t get it.
“I don’t care if you think it’s the fault of humans or not,” Nisbet said. “If you want to keep your head in the sand, that’s up to you. But the rest of us need to get it together because we’re not out of the woods yet on this thing.”
Shellfish ‘pretty much all we have’
To understand why the Nisbets landed in Hawaii, you first have to understand Willapa Bay.
At low tide on a crisp dawn, Dave Nisbet’s daughter, 27-year-old Kathleen Nisbet, bundled in fleece and Gore-Tex, steps from a skiff onto the glittering tide flats. Even at eight months pregnant, she is agile as a cat after decades of sloshing through mud in hip boots.
All around, employees scoop fresh shellfish from the surf and pile it in bins. Nisbet watches the harvest for a while, jokes with workers in Spanish, then clambers back into the boat.
“I’m always happy to get out here,” she whispers. “I never tire of it.”
The Nisbets were relative newcomers to shellfish.
Native Americans along the coast relied on shellfish for thousands of years. After settlers overfished local oysters, shipping them by schooner to San Francisco during the Gold Rush, farmers started raising bivalves here like crops. Now the industry in this shallow estuary and Puget Sound employs about 3,200 people and produces one-quarter of the nation’s oysters.
U.S. human sources of carbon dioxide
Source: U.S. EPA, Mark Nowlin / The Seattle Times
Kathleen’s parents bought 10 acres of tidelands near Bay Center in 1975 and started growing their own, which Dave sold from the back of his truck. Sometimes Kathleen came along.
She sipped a baby bottle and ate cookies while riding the dredge with her father. She packed boxes and labeled jars with her mother, Maureene Nisbet, and piloted a skiff by herself at age 10 through lonely channels. She keeps a cluster of shells on her desk at the family processing plant to store business cards and office supplies.
“Willapa is about oyster and clam farming,” she said. “It’s pretty much all we have.”
Her parents built their business over decades, one market at a time. They eventually pieced together 500 acres of tidelands and hired 70 people.
For a long time, business was good — until, overnight, it suddenly wasn’t.
It’s hard to imagine now how far CO2 was from anyone’s mind when the oysters crashed.
A handful of healthy oyster seed from Goose Point Oyster Co.’s Hawaiian hatchery takes root on an adult oyster shell. When young oysters reach this age, they are strong enough to withstand the Northwest’s increasingly corrosive waters — at least for now.
In 2005, when no young oysters survived in Willapa Bay at all, farmers blamed the vagaries of nature. After two more years with essentially no reproduction, panic set in. Then things got worse.
By 2008, oysters were dying at Oregon’s Whiskey Creek Hatchery, which draws water directly from the Pacific Ocean. The next year, it struck a Taylor Shellfish hatchery outside Quilcene, which gets its water from Hood Canal. Owners initially suspected bacteria, Vibrio tubiashii. But shellfish died even when it wasn’t present.
Willapa farming is centered on the nonnative Pacific oyster, which was introduced from Japan in the 1920s. Some farms raise them in the wild, but that’s so complex most buy oyster seed from hatcheries to get things started.
The hatcheries spawn adult oysters, producing eggs and then larvae that grow tiny shells. When the creatures settle on a hard surface — usually an old oyster shell — these young mollusks get plopped into the bay and moved around for years until they fatten up.
Only a handful of hatcheries supply West Coast farmers, including Whiskey Creek and Taylor Shellfish, which sells seed only after meeting its own needs. So each spring, Kathleen’s parents put an order in with Whiskey Creek until the mid-2000s, when that option vanished.
“I do not think people understand the seriousness of the problem. Ocean acidification … has the potential to be a real catastrophe.”
“The hatchery had a long waiting list of customers and no seed, and we had a small window of time to get it into the bay,” Dave Nisbet recalled. “They had nothing.”
Whiskey Creek hatchery closed for weeks at a stretch. Production at Taylor Shellfish was off more than 60 percent. And more than just regular customers needed help.
With wild oysters not growing at all, suddenly hundreds of growers needed shellfish larvae. The entire industry was on the brink. Oyster growers from Olympia to Grays Harbor worried that in a few years’ time they would not be able to bring shellfish to market.
Nisbet made frantic calls, but could not find another source. He worked closely with Whiskey Creek, but owners there were stumped. Nisbet knew his business was in trouble.
“It’s like any other farm,” Dave Nisbet said. “If you don’t plant seed, sooner or later you don’t have crops. And there wasn’t enough seed to go around.”
In 2008, Kathleen Nisbet fretted about the prospect of laying off people her family had employed since she’d been in diapers. She feared that years of bad or no production could become the new normal.
Second-generation oyster farmer Kathleen Nisbet gets shuttled at sunrise from the Goose Point Oyster Co. processing plant in Bay Center, Pacific County, to the oyster flats of Willapa Bay. View photo gallery →
“It was really tough, as a second generation, to come in knowing the struggles we were going to have,” she said. “It’s really hard on a business when you’ve built something for the past 30 years and you have to take your business and basically cut it in half.”
But unless the family found a solution, they soon would have nothing to sell.
And no one, anywhere, could tell them what was wrong.
“I thought, ‘What are we going to do?’ ” Dave said.
Then the oyster growers met the oceanographers.
Corrosive waters rise to surface
Dick Feely, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, had measured ocean chemistry for more than 30 years and by the early 2000s was noting a dramatic change off the West Coast.
Low pH water naturally occurred hundreds of feet down, where colder water held more CO2. But that corrosive water was rising swiftly, getting ever closer to the surface where most of the marine life humans care about lived.
So in 2007, Feely organized a crew of scientists. They measured and tracked that water from Canada to Mexico.
“What surprised us was we actually saw these very corrosive waters for the very first time get to the surface in Northern California,” he said.
That hadn’t been expected for 50 to 100 years. And that wasn’t the worst of it.
Because of the way the ocean circulates, the corrosive water that surfaces off Washington, California and Oregon is the result of CO2 that entered the sea decades earlier. Even if emissions get halted immediately, West Coast sea chemistry — unlike the oceans at large — would worsen for several decades before plateauing.
It would take 30 to 50 years before the worst of it reached the surface. Oregon State University scientist Burke Hales once compared that phenomenon to the Unabomber mailing a package to the future. The dynamite had a delayed fuse.
Feely published his findings in 2008. Shellfish growers took note. Some recalled earlier studies that predicted juvenile oysters would someday prove particularly sensitive to acidification. The oyster farmers invited Feely to their annual conference.
Feely explained that when north winds blew, deep ocean water was drawn right to the beach, which meant this newly corrosive water probably got sucked into the hatchery. That same water also flowed into the Strait of Juan de Fuca and made its way to Hood Canal.
The oyster industry pleaded with Congress, which supplied money for new equipment. Over several years, the hatcheries tested their water using high-tech pH sensors. When the pH was low, it was very low and baby oysters died within two days. By drawing water only when the pH was normal, shellfish production got back on track.
“They told us it was like turning on headlights on a car — it was so clear what was going on,” Feely said.
It wasn’t until 2012 that Feely and a team from Oregon State University finally showed with certainty that acidification had caused the problem. Early this summer OSU professor George Waldbusser demonstrated precisely how.
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Reporter Craig Welch, along with NOAA oceanographers Jeremy Mathis and Richard Feely, answer reader questions.
The oysters were not dissolving. They were dying because the corrosive water forced the young animals to use too much energy. Acidification had robbed the water of important minerals, so the oysters worked far harder to extract what they needed to build their shells.
Waldbusser still is not entirely sure why acidification has not yet hit other oyster species. It could be because other species, such as the native Olympic, have evolved to be more adaptable to high CO2, or because they rear larvae differently, or because they spawn at a time of year when corrosive water is less common. It could also be that acidification is just not quite bad enough yet to do them harm.
Either way, by then, the Nisbets had moved on. They had experimented with growing oysters in Hawaii and now had their own hatchery outside Hilo.
Manager David Stick outside Hawaiian Shellfish, the hatchery started near Hilo by Goose Point Oyster Co. It draws water from an underground saltwater aquifer rather than directly from the ocean.
Small fixes, big worries
David Stick opened a spigot from a tub that resembled an aboveground pool. He let water wash over a fine mesh screen. It was a muggy Hawaii morning and the Nisbets’ hatchery manager was straining oyster larvae.
When the tiny bivalves are big enough to produce shells, Stick mails them back to Washington. There, Kathleen’s crew plants them in the bay.
Instead of relying on the increasingly corrosive Northwest coast, the family built a hatchery that drew on something else — a warm, underground, saltwater aquifer. That water source is not likely to be affected by ocean chemistry changes for many decades, if at all.
But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing more to fear.
For now, no one else has taken as dramatic a step as the Nisbets. The Northwest industry is getting around the problem. Hatcheries have changed the timing of when they draw in water. Scientists installed ocean monitors that give hatchery owners a few days notice that conditions will be poor for rearing larvae.
Growers are crushing up shells and adding chemicals to the water to make it less corrosive. Shellfish geneticists are working to breed new strains of oysters that are more resistant to low pH water.
But no one thinks any of that will work forever.
Hatchery worker Brian Koval transfers algae from a beaker to a larger vessel in the Nisbets’ oyster hatchery in Hawaii. View photo gallery →
“I do not think people understand the seriousness of the problem,” Stick said. “Ocean acidification is going to be a game-changer. It has the potential to be a real catastrophe.”
At the moment, the problem only strikes oysters at the very early stages of their development, within the first week or so of life. Once they have built shell and are placed back on the tide flats, they tend to deal better with sea chemistry changes.
But how long will that be the case? How would they respond to changes in the food web?
“The algae is changing,” Stick said. “The food source that everything depends on is changing. Will things adapt? We don’t know. We’ve never had to face anything like this before.”
An urgency to educate
With one young son, and a baby on the way, it’s been impossible for Kathleen not to think about her own next generation.
“Thank God my dad took a proactive measure to protect me,” she said. “If he wouldn’t have done that, I would suffer and my son would suffer.”
She thinks a lot about the need for school curricula and other efforts to get kids and adults thinking and learning about changing sea chemistry.
“I don’t think that our government is recognizing that ocean acidification exists,” she said. “I don’t think society understands the impacts it has. They think ocean acidification … no big deal, it’s a huge ocean.”
But the reality is, over the next decade, the world will have to make progress tackling this issue.
“We’re living proof,” Nisbet said. “If you ignore it, it’s only going to get worse. Plain and simple: It will get worse.”