Oyster farmers have worked on the Northwest coast for more than a century. But the ocean where they labor is becoming more acidic, and their future is in doubt
Words Ben Stone | Visuals Karina Ordell & Kathryn Boyd-Batstone
Mark Wiegardt steps slowly through knee-high water, pausing over some jagged lumps of brown-gray shells with a bent flat-head screwdriver. Like the three generations of oyster farmers have done before him, he picks up one of the clumps of oysters and rests it on his thigh, stabbing and wrenching until the shellfish crack apart. The creatures inside these shells are more valuable than ever, and Wiegardt tries his best to make them look nice by bashing off the sharp edges.
Biologically, oysters seem simple; they are as sedentary as organisms come. But many things are unclear about Northwest oysters and the muddy water in which they live. It is impossible to see by looking at the water, but 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.
As one of the managers of Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery in Netarts Bay, Oregon, Wiegardt understands the concern surrounding ocean acidification better than almost anyone. The trouble began six years ago in the hatchery’s vats, where the oyster larvae began to turn from a healthy brown to a sickly pink. Like most other hatcheries on the West Coast, Whiskey Creek grows Pacific oysters—a Japanese species introduced to America in the early 1900s. Whiskey Creek grows oysters in fresh bodies of water connected to the ocean, known as estuaries, but most of the West Coast is too cold for Pacific oysters to spawn naturally. So, oyster seed suppliers like Whiskey Creek act as an incubator.
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 farms along the coast. The farmers take the oyster “seed” to their nurseries and dump it into giant tanks filled with vacant oyster shells and saltwater.
In a matter of hours, the tiny larvae start and finish a cutthroat race to attach to empty shells or risk dying of exposure. After a couple weeks, the larvae “set” onto their chosen shells and become mature oysters. At this stage of development, the farmers remove the shellfish from the tanks and throw 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 sold to clients.
In the late summer of 2007, the oyster larvae at Whiskey Creek didn’t make it out of 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,” says Sue Cudd, owner of Whiskey Creek.
That summer, Whiskey Creek was forced to shut down for several weeks and couldn’t supply its customers with seed. But what was even more concerning for the company was 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 says.
A year after the first die-offs, Whiskey Creek engineer Alan Barton scrambled for clues as to why Whiskey Creek’s methods were suddenly not working. He began testing for diseases and chemical disorders in the bay water that fills the hatchery’s tanks, and found that the pH levels were far below average. Thinking his measurements must have been faulty, Barton began sampling the water and sending it in vials to Oregon State University’s oceanography department to be analyzed. Upon finding that his measurements were accurate, Barton realized the die-offs had begun at about the same time the pH in Netarts Bay was dropping to previously unheard-of levels. The water was becoming more acidic.
The acidic water in the bay was corroding their shells, causing the larvae to die when they tried to form an exoskeleton.
But discovering the cause of the die-off didn’t necessarily bring a solution. That is, until Barton thought back to his first experience trying to re-create an ocean on land.
When Barton was young, he kept fish and regularly buffered the tank with soda ash and other chemicals to regulate the water chemistry. Maybe, he thought, the chemistry he used in his childhood aquarium might translate to Whiskey Creek’s larvae containers. “We threw buffer in every single tank. The next day they were brown and feeding,” Cudd says.
Since then, Whiskey Creek has become far better at sustaining healthy brown larvae in its vat water, and now uses an automatic system to constantly buffer the water. However, Barton’s buffer cure is confined to hatchery tubs, and no method exists that can de-acidify entire oceans.
The die-offs made 2007 a definitive year for the small community of West Coast oyster farmers. For some, it meant an uncertain future. Nick Jambor, owner of Ekone Oyster Company in Willapa Bay, Washington, still receives enough paper towels of seed to fill his shells, but he recognizes that his business could be in danger in the coming years if ocean acidification remains unresolved. However, a sense of loyalty to the people at Whiskey Creek keeps him going. “I’ve always felt that I was going to ride this thing out with them,” he says.
Kathleen Nisbet, a manager of Goose Point Oyster Company in Willapa Bay, saw the 2007 die-offs differently—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,” says Nisbet. “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. Both Wiegardt and Roberto Quintana, engineer at Ekone Oyster Company, feel that mature oysters are now at risk. Quintana says that he 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 says.
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 to mature in their safe nursery tanks. 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,” says Jambor. “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 hell-bent on not letting 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 for funding to build monitoring stations that measure the water’s acidity.
“Farmers in general, I think we all like to complain a little more than we should. [But] any time you know a little bit about something that may have a huge impact, you need to communicate that,” Wiegardt says. “It’s not responsible to hide from the facts.”
That’s not to say Wiegardt would rather hack through national bureaucracy than drive his boat through the maze of shallow banks that furrow his oyster fields. “Going back to D.C. is a hard trip,” he says. “You gotta wear a suit, which I have a problem with.”
But 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 says. “We’re solving a problem here as we speak.”