The Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon is bustling with scientists carrying tubs full of sloshing salt water, careful not to spill any as they walk. They take the tubs into a “Larval Room,” setting them onto shelves and attaching small thermometers to keep track of the bucket’s ambient water temperature. One man dressed in black galoshes and a neon orange fishing bib monitors the tubs going into the Larval Room, making notes on a clipboard about each of the cultures. He walks into a concrete room full of pipes and hoses that keep the cultures in a stable environment before moving over to one of the tubs.
The tub’s label reads: “01.2012 Adam.” Inside the tub is a milky white swirl of genetically-altered oysters, and they are geneticist David Stick’s pride and joy.
They may also be the Olympia oyster’s last hope.
Olympia oysters are native to the West Coast, and their population has been on a rapid decline since the days of the gold rush. Only recently have scientists understood how vital Olympia oysters are to bay and estuary ecosystems, as the species preserve the natural balance of these ecosystems better than any non-native oyster could.
Although Stick doesn’t specifically work with Olympia oysters because it is illegal to harvest them, he does experiment with the traits of the Pacific oysters to improve their yield and to make them hardier than Pacific oysters found in the wild. Stick says that he focuses on gene sets that will improve the shell quality, the animal’s survival rate, the actual size of the oyster, and the oyster’s meat-to-shell ratio. However, it’s difficult to genetically design an oyster that has these superior qualities because oysters are a naturally weak species that haven’t yet developed ways to combat the thirty-two lethal genetic diseases they’re susceptible to.
“Parent oysters put out about ten million oyster larvae, and if you get a couple to survive, that’s good,” Stick says, looking over his notes before checking the families of each oyster larvae tub.
“Oysters are sloppy at doing what they do [reproducing], but they do produce a lot.”
Stick wasn’t originally involved in oyster restoration efforts. Before he was manipulating the gene sets of oysters, he was working with livestock in the Midwest. “I didn’t want to work with cattle, and chicken, and pigs like I was,” Stick says. “I knew that I wanted to work with an aquaculture species. I knew where I wanted to go, I tried to create my own job, and that’s what I’ve essentially succeeded in so far being able to do.”
Stick enjoys being part of a young and developing field of biology. There are currently only two oyster breeding programs in the United States and about a handful worldwide. “It’s developing, and so it’s the taking of essentially a wild animal and making massive gains within a short period of time that help the producers that are struggling,” Stick says. He hopes his breeding projects will continue for the next several years and that the Olympia oyster’s population numbers will return.
“Nature’s a wonderful thing and I do see [the Olympia oysters] coming back in the kind of numbers that it can improve the ecosystem associated with where they were once located,” Stick says.
Olympia oysters weren’t always so depleted. The species used to thrive in the bays and estuaries along the West Coast, the most densely-populated regions in Oregon having been located in Coos Bay, Yaquina Bay, and Netarts Bay. Historically, the Olympia oysters were an important source of food for Native Americans, although it wasn’t until Europeans flocked to the West Coast in search of gold that the Olympia oysters became over-harvested.
The oysters became popular during this period because they were served in brothels as an aphrodisiac. In addition to the over-harvesting, wildfires caused fine sediment to fall into the West Coast’s bays and estuaries, thus burying most of the
Olympia oysters and causing them to starve to death. While these tragedies have kept the Olympia oyster population small, two more scientists are determined to keep this endangered species from any more demise.
Up in Washington, on a small island in the Puget Sound, Betsy Peabody looks out into one of Bainbridge Island’s glorious bays. It’s bays like these that she works tirelessly to protect. Peabody is the founder of the Puget Sound Restoration Fund (PSRF), an organization dedicated to preserving Olympia oysters, Pinto abalones, and kelp, all of which are keystone species to the region’s ecosystem. The Olympia oyster project is one of the PSRF’s largest and longest-running initiatives because of how sparse the Olympia oyster populations are in the Puget Sound. While Peabody says PSRF has found the species living in the bays, less than four percent of historic core Olympia oyster populations remain.
“The oyster beds of old were dense and resilient and provided lots of ecological benefits as described above,” Peabody says. “This is what we’re trying to re-establish.” Peabody prides herself on the amount of restoration work her organization has done so far, and says the PSRF hopes to restore one hundred acres of oyster populations in the next eight years.
While Peabody originally procured a bachelor’s in English, she has been involved with marine biology her entire life. She went to scuba and marine biology camps as a child, and biogenic habitats such as mangrove forests and coral reefs have held a special place in her heart. “These are natural structures built by living species that support a whole community of organisms around them. I’m still smitten with these types of habitats today,” Peabody explains.
Her affinity with the sea is one of the motivations behind her work.
“I feel like I’ve discovered who I am through this work,” Peabody says. “Frankly, I think I would have thrived as a member of a Paleolithic tribe. I’m a bit of a misfit in the modern world but enormously happy that I get to participate in this kind of restoration work.”
Peabody feels that coastal resources, including Olympia oysters and other shellfish, represent the beginning of humankind and our primal habits. To her, all shellfish are a connection to a time thousands of years ago, and it is because of this special connection that she wants to raise awareness.
Having lost eighty-five percent of the shellfish population worldwide, she fears the animals will be perpetually be endangered if over-harvested, and humans may not only lose this important piece of their history, but a key piece to all aquatic ecosystems as well.
By going out into the bays to find oyster samples and monitoring and enhancing oyster beds, Peabody hopes this keystone species will slowly turn itself around. Still, she feels the oysters are a long ways away from becoming completely restored.
Over in Coos Bay, Steve Rumrill and his team of graduate and doctoral students have been working diligently on several restoration projects. Rumrill, whose projects are located in Coos Bay but who works in Newport at the Hatfield Marine Science Center, is a research scientist and the Shellfish Program Leader for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Rumrill has five different restoration projects set up. One works in Coos Bay. The other, located in South Slough, is trying to discover everything from why the Olympia oysters haven’t been able to repopulate their own species to where the best areas along the tideflats are to “plant” more of the creatures so they won’t compete with other Pacific oyster populations.
One of Rumrill’s major projects is a “common garden” study, a scientific method that determines genetic diversity. Rumrill and his team will take some of the Olympia oysters found in Washington and raise them next to animals living in Coos Bay. He works closely with Stick on this project, as Stick uses his genetics background to tell if Coos Bay Olympia oysters are faring better or worse than their Washingtonian counterparts.
“Turns out that being local is better,” Rumrill says. “Those juveniles [Coos Bay native Olympia oysters] grow and survive a little bit better than the imports from Washington even though they’re the same species. There’s something about that – being local for generations from that bay is helpful.” The project, which has been active for around three years, has so far been successful; the team currently has about four million Olympia oysters spread out in the South Slough area, although this number is still extremely small in comparison to its historic population numbers.
For Rumrill, oysters and marine ecology are extremely important. Upon realizing that shellfish populations were on a global decline, he knew he had to get involved.
“I was looking at a situation in my local backyard in the Coos estuary where I could make a difference in the recovery of a population before I was too old to do some good work,” Rumrill says.
Beginning his career as a marine scientist during his undergraduate years in California, Rumrill has always been interested in the world’s ever-growing environmental problems and wanted to be part of the solution. It wasn’t until he came to Oregon that he was able to put his environmental solutions into practice.
“The opportunity to really have an impact on populations and to be able to go to bed at night and say, ‘The world is a better place because of the work I’m doing,’ is one of the most rewarding things,” Rumrill says. He says his work is just as rewarding intellectually due to his ability to draw from the scientific work happening all over the world and give students and volunteer groups the tools and resources necessary to help them with their own restoration projects.
While Rumrill doesn’t think Olympia oysters should be put on the endangered species list quite yet, he does believe the animals should be given the time they need to naturally restore their population. He worries that oyster poaching will prevent this from happening.
“Whenever people hear the word ‘oyster’ they immediately think ‘food,’” Rumrill says.
“What I ask people to do is to think about oysters in a way other than food. Think about them as an ecological habitat and a major component of the ecology of estuaries that has been taken away.”
Until people stop associating oysters with food, he believes the Olympia oyster population will constantly be in danger of going extinct.
Back at the Hatfield science lab, Stick feeds the oysters a sample of the facility’s home-grown algae.
He looks over his tanks full of oysters, each maturing on their own—his life’s work there growing for all to see. Each sample has the potential to become the hardiest oyster. To Peabody, Rumrill, and Stick, oysters are precious species. Although Stick raises his oysters to be harvested and eaten, all three scientists believe that the Olympia oyster plays a vital role in marine environments, and that if people would simply change the way they think about this animal they can save a keystone species, an important piece of humankind’s past.