Oysters Are in High Demand. So Why Is the Industry So Worried?

Ocean acidification poses a major threat to the American oyster business.

Ocean acidification has led to decreased yields for oyster farmers. (Photo: Edwin Remsberg/Getty Images)

Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

Farmed oysters are the darlings of the sustainable seafood movement, and for good reason. They’re filter feeders that improve the water in the bays and estuaries where they’re grown. Pollution and escapement are pretty much non-issues. And unlike farmed carnivorous fish (like salmon or bluefin tuna), oysters don’t need fishmeal, antibiotics or pesticides.

Oysters are trendy, tasty and undoubtedly “in,” but they’re also in trouble.

Standing against a weathered picket fence on the shoreline of his Tomales Bay headquarters, just north of San Francisco, oyster grower Terry Sawyer says he’s on the front line of worrisome changes. Sawyer is a founding partner in Hog Island Oyster Company, whose restaurants in the Ferry Building and in Napa are a magnet for throngs of locals and tourists alike, and is just part of the $110 million West Coast oyster industry.

“We’re getting squeezed. Demand for oysters is growing, while seed sources are dying off. There’s a big problem here,” he says. “We’re talking about a paradigm shift.”

What he’s really talking about is ocean acidification—climate change’s evil twin—and it’s impacting Sawyer’s business in an unprecedented way.

Like other oyster farms dotting the West Coast, Hog Island typically orders seed (meaning baby oysters, also known as spat) from one of the four remaining West Coast hatcheries. Hatcheries that are dealing with an increasingly acidic ocean, which means tiny oyster babies have a much harder time growing shell and thriving—a problem we told you about back in June.

When Taylor Shellfish Farms and Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery faced massive losses of oyster larvae in 2008 and 2009, the impact rippled through Hog Island’s operation, and continues to do so. Sawyer says he typically orders 7 million seed a year from hatcheries. This year, he was only able to purchase 2.5 million, and the seed oysters he can get his hands on are significantly smaller and far more vulnerable.

“If I only get 20 percent of the seed I need, it impacts harvest for two years,” says Sawyer.

Which is why Hog Island is beginning to experiment with growing their own oyster seed and has partnered with scientists like Tessa Hill from the Bodega Marine Laboratory. Hill has placed monitoring equipment directly in Tomales Bay, where many Hog Island-brand oysters grow. That equipment measures the pH levels in the water on an hourly basis and is just part of a larger monitoring project that will extend up and down the western coastline.

“Ocean acidification first alarmed people when they saw coral reefs dying, but then we soon realized that some places on the planet are more susceptible than others. The West Coast is one of those places,” says Hill. “It’s already very challenging for these animals to make shells.”

Ocean Conservancy scientist George Leonard tells TakePart that it’s only a matter of time before ocean acidification is felt further up the food chain.

“Ocean acidification is like an octopus with tentacles working its way through the system. Oysters are not the end of the story; they’re the beginning,” he says. “Oyster growers are the guys that are feeling it first. If you have a vested interest in the ocean today, it will be a fundamentally different ocean in the future. We can’t tell you exactly how it’s going to be different, but this is not just an oyster story. The clock is ticking here.”

Worried? We are too. And we can’t help but wonder if “future us” will be paying $10 or $20 for a single, beautiful, briny oyster.

“I don’t think there’s any economist out there who can predict oysters will go to $20, but the basics of supply and demand will mean that it will cost more. We’re heading to a place that the ocean chemistry is such that it can make few and fewer oysters, which likely means the price will go up,” he said.

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