The Oyster in the Shellfish Farm

This is the second part in our three-part investigation of how Ocean Acidification is affecting the West Coast. Please see the Jan. 10th article “A Huge Experiment” for excellent discussion of what Ocean Acidification is and what causes it.

We’ve all heard of the canary in the coal mine, the idea that certain animals can act as alarms of changing conditions. Well, say “hello” to the oyster in the shellfish farm! Just as canaries warned miners of dangerous gasses in mine shafts, oysters are now warning shellfish growers about increasing acidity in the oceans. Shellfish growers are paying attention and working with scientists to develop monitoring approaches to understand how changing ocean conditions are impacting west coast ecosystems, and their bottom line.

The Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery, located on Netart’s Bay, Oregon, is the second largest producer of shellfish larvae for the West Coast. Using nutrient rich water from the bay, their operation spawns, grows and ships billions of baby shellfish to aquaculturists from Canada to South America. In 2008, they had a sudden and mysterious decline in the production of their larvae that nearly crippled their business and their ability to supply larvae to a $100 million industry that depended on them. At this same time, water saturated with high CO2 was hitting the Pacific coast, and it became clear that this corrosive water was severely impacting the ability of shellfish in their vulnerable developing early stages.

I got a chance to visit Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery in late 2011 to tour their facility and learn about a collaboration between the co-owner, Mark Weigart, and a team of scientists from Oregon State University, led by George Waldbusser. The collaboration was focused on understanding the physiological processes that the corrosive water was having on larval organisms and developing adaptation strategies to prevent hatchery die-offs. Among the large plastic tanks containing billions of larvae, a small laptop with sensors is hooked up to the piping system that delivers bay water to the hatchery. The team of scientists developed this homemade monitoring system to measure water chemistry and inform hatchery owners if the water will harm shellfish larvae. This helps a lot, and the system also takes advantage of information from offshore Integrated Ocean Observing Systems (IOOS) to send a warning to the hatchery when cold highly acidified water is on its way to Whiskey Creek. The operators can then reduce the amount of water they pull from the bay or supplement the water to reduce its impact on the larvae.

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On the West Coast, there are three IOOS regional associations (CeNCOOS, SCCOOS, NANOOS) who work together to provide comprehensive data and forecasts for the California Current Large Marine Ecosystem. Recently, the West Coast IOOS’ have explored partnerships with the West Coast Governors Alliance (WCGA) on tackling issues of regional significance, like ocean acidification.

These monitoring approaches and adaptation strategies are helping Whiskey Creek and other hatcheries on the coast deal with the effects of ocean acidification and highlight the importance of regional ocean observing data in improving our understanding of changing ocean conditions. Have you seen effects of ocean acidification on your part of the coast?