Oyster revival may be shucked

BY JENNIFER ANDERSON, Pamplin Media Group, Jun 14, 2012 — Ocean acidification, linked to climate change, threatens fishery

When it comes to oysters, people either love ’em or hate ’em, and there’s little in between.

Tobias Hogan understands why: Most people probably tried them first on a dare, or ate them from a can or jar, or a restaurant that didn’t treat them well.

“It was probably a little fishy, or gummy, not a very good experience,” Hogan says.

He aimed to change all that by opening EaT: An Oyster Bar, on Portland’s North Williams Avenue in 2008, along with co-owner Ethan Powell (EaT is a partial acronym for their first names).

The idea was to make uber-fresh and regionally sourced oysters part of Portland’s farm-to-table scene, since they’re considered one of the ocean’s most sustainable seafoods. Wild oyster stocks may be overfished, but locally farmed and harvested oysters thrive in Pacific Northwest waters, don’t drain resources or involve harmful fishing techniques, and help keep estuaries clean by acting as natural filters.

Oysters also perform another key function for the ecosystem: they’re considered a “canary in the coal mine,” an indicator species that predicts problems for other aquatic life.

Now a new study shows the canary may be ailing.

Oregon State University researchers noticed in April that one oyster hatchery in Oregon’s Netarts Bay had dropped off in production of oyster seed.

That meant oysters were taking longer to reach their larval stage of development, which is part of their cycle of hatching into a farm-ready oyster.

“Ocean acidification is what’s affecting our product,” explains Alan Barton, who works at Whiskey Creek Hatchery in Netarts Bay, where the research centered.

More acidic water — caused by increased carbon dioxide in the air — affects the formation of calcium carbonate, the mineral that oyster shells are made of.

“This is one of the first times that we have been able to show how ocean acidification affects oyster larval development at a critical life stage,” says Burke Hales, an OSU chemical oceanographer and study co-author.

And the culprit appears to be climate change.

“The predicted rise of atmospheric CO2 in the next two to three decades may push oyster larval growth past the break-even point in terms of production,” Hales says.

Every year, the Oregon Coast has an “upwelling,” which means deep water comes up and brings nutrients, Barton explains. The deep water has always been more acidic than surface water because of decaying materials on the ocean floor.

Recently, tests found the water to be .1 pH units lower than it used to be, which translates to 30 percent more acidic. “If there’s more carbon dioxide in the air than the water, the water sucks it up,” Barton says. “Fifty years ago, there were a bunch of fossil fuels being burned, it went into the water, meandered around … and then last year, popped up in a summertime upwelling on the Oregon Coast.”

At Whiskey Creek — which supplies larval seeds to dozens of oyster farms along the West Coast — it’s been a challenge to produce enough larvae.

Luckily, a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration allowed the hatchery to buy some of the world’s best water-chemistry monitoring equipment, which it uses to test the water each day and decide when exactly to pump water in from the bay. “We really need to pump water all day to make money,” Barton says. “But it is a strategy that allows us to break even and get our product out to the industry.”

Oyster farms are big business in Oregon and even more so in Washington. Commercial oyster producers on the West Coast collect $100 million a year in sales, generating an estimated $273 million in economic activity, according to OSU.

Hats off to oysters

One sizzling hot Saturday afternoon in mid-May, the tables outside of EaT were overflowing with oyster shells, lemon wedges, hot sauce bottles and cans of beer.

People didn’t come for the sustainable aspect of oysters — they came for the oyster revolution of sorts that’s just started to catch on in Portland. …

Read the rest of the story on Sustainable Life.