When Oysters and Seawater Don’t Mix

Two weeks ago the Hog Island Oyster Company in Marshall, CA hosted a tour of their shellfish farm. The goal of the tour was to raise awareness of ocean acidification. Coordinated by co-owners Terry Sawyer and John Finger; Dr. Tessa Hill from the UC Davis Bodega Bay Labs; the Ocean Conservancy and the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, the tour would also showcase how the Hog Island Oyster Company has responded to ocean acidification. The collaborative research project to monitor the seawater pH of Tomales Bay that is conducted on site at the shellfish farm with Dr. Tessa Hill is one such response and a major part of Hog Island’s plan to stay in business in times of uncertain ocean pH.

Those looking on at our group gathered on the edge of Tomales Bay would have thought we were enjoying a leisurely day in the late autumn sun. And we were. What they might not have thought was that we were addressing a serious topic. That day ocean acidification was discussed and many questions asked as we slurped oysters, a briny sweet reminder of what we stand to lose if we don’t get a handle on carbon emissions that cause the pH of seawater to drop.

Why is a drop in the pH of seawater an issue to be concerned about? When the pH of anything drops, it becomes more acidic. For many people it helps to consider their own backyard to better understand why pH levels matter. Even if you aren’t a master gardener you have probably heard about acid loving plants and plants that like ‘sweeter soil’ or soil with a more alkaline pH. Maybe you have asked a salesperson at your local garden center if a particular plant will be happy in your yard and heard in response, “Is your soil acid?” Perhaps like me you took home a tempting plant only to have it fail and wither as it didn’t like the acid soil on offer in your garden beds. When you were digging in the acid soil filled corner of your yard did your hands get burned by the soil with an acid pH? No, but the plants that died in the same soil sure had a different response. Substitute you in a swimsuit splashing unaffected in an acid ocean amongst struggling oyster larvae and a mix of other microscopic members of the marine food web and you’ve got it.

A drop in the pH of seawater affects the ability of juvenile shellfish and other zooplankton to form their first protective layers of shell. Without protection these microscopic animals can’t survive and mature to the stage at which we identify them as seafood. This is also a problem for the larger members of the marine food web like salmon and tuna as small fish are eaten by big fish and really small fish eat zooplankton.

For some people on the tour of Hog Island Oyster Company this was their first introduction to ocean acidification. Others in the group could and do lecture on the implications of changes in seawater chemistry. Regardless of how much was known going into the tour, all left well fed, more informed on ocean acidification and inspired to cut carbon. But if you were like me, you still had questions about what could be done.

Later that same week and up the coast to Washington State, a similar tour was hosted at Taylor Shellfish Farms Quilcene Hatchery on Dabob Bay. Again the goal was to raise awareness of ocean acidification and to learn how Taylor Shellfish Farms are responding to the threat ocean acidification poses to their business and the more than 3,200 jobs the Washington shellfish industry supports. This time the tour guests sported raingear and wool hats, not sunscreen and sunglasses. In spite of the howling wind and threatening rain and because we expect this in the Pacific Northwest, there was a great turn out.

The tour groups at both the Hog Island and Taylor Shellfish sites were diverse and included journalists from media sources covering topics ranging from the seafood industry, environment and policy to food and sustainability. Chefs, shellfish farmers, and nonprofit organizations rounded out the tour groups for truly diverse sets of individuals who came together to learn more about ocean acidification. In addition, the Taylor Shellfish tour group brought out University of Washington faculty and students and members of Washington State’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Ocean Acidification.

The Washington State Department of Ecology website offers this description of the role of the Blue Ribbon Panel. “In December 2011, Governor Gregoire convened a Blue Ribbon Panel of leading tribal, state, federal and local policy makers; scientific experts; public opinion leaders; and industry representatives.”

“The Blue Ribbon Panel has focused on documenting the current state of scientific knowledge, ways to advance our scientific understanding of the effects of ocean acidification, and recommend actions to respond to increasing ocean acidification, reduce harmful effects on Washington’s shellfish and other marine resources, and adapt to the impacts of acidified waters.”

After a year’s work, on Tuesday, November 27th  the Washington State Blue Ribbon Panel on Ocean Acidification will release their recommendations to Governor Christine Gregoire. Along with Dr. Jane Lubchenco from NOAA and other guests, the 28 members of the Blue Ribbon Panel, will gather at the Seattle Aquarium for the morning event and press conference.

The release of these recommendations marks an important milestone in the recent history of ocean acidification. The actions of Washington State in response to the recommendation made by the Blue Ribbon Panel will be watched by the whole world. The attention is definitely not the Oscars type of hype. The proceedings will be followed by a smaller, more specialized sector. Some might suggest it is a somewhat geeky population of the world but they/we/me are people who are concerned for the future of our oceans. I have to admit I am strangely hopeful and anxious to hear what is recommended by the Blue Ribbon Panel. We need some direction and leadership to pull us out of the ‘nothing can be done’ funk that a problem as big as ocean acidification can bring on. We are watching you, Washington.

Note: follow this link for more information on Washington State’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Ocean Acidification: http://www.ecy.wa.gov/water/marine/oceanacidification.html

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