When Alan Barton first arrived at Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery in 2007, he wasn’t expecting to stay very long. The hatchery — the second-largest in the United States — was in trouble, suffering from historically high mortality rates for their microscopic oyster larvae. But Barton knew that in the oyster industry, trouble is just another part of the job.
As manager of the oyster breeding program at Oregon State University, he had already helped one oyster larvae breeding operation navigate through some tough years in 2005, when a bacterial infection appeared to be causing problems for their seeds. To combat the issue, he had created a treatment system that could remove vibrio tubiashii, an infamous killer in the oyster industry, from the water.
Barton made the winding two-hour drive up the Oregon coast from Newport to Netarts, thinking his machines could easily solve whatever was plaguing Whiskey Creek. But when Barton’s $180,000 machine turned on, nothing changed. The hatchery was still suffering massive larvae mortality — months where nearly every one of the billions of tiny larvae housed in the hatchery’s vast network died before it could reach maturity.
Two-hundred miles up the coast in Shelton, Washington, Bill Dewey was also stumped. As director of public affairs for Taylor Shellfish, the country’s largest producer of farmed shellfish, he couldn’t figure out what was causing the hatchery’s tiny larvae to die in huge numbers. He knew about vibrio tubiashii, so when the die-offs began, Dewey called Barton and asked if they could install his machines at Taylor Shellfish’s own hatchery in the Puget Sound. And like at Whiskey Creek, the machines did little to stop the mysterious waves of death that were consuming the hatchery’s oyster larvae.
Back in Oregon, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)-vessel rocked by persistent summer winds was approaching Newport. Dick Feely, a senior scientist with NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, was just halfway through the first-ever survey meant to measure the amount of carbon dioxide in the surface waters of the Pacific Coast. Already, he could tell from the few samples they had collected that he and his team had the material for a major scientific paper. He called his boss at NOAA to tell him that there was something wrong with the water. It seemed that an increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, propelled by the burning of fossil fuels, was also increasing the acidity of the water.
Eight years later, Barton stands on the side of the same winding coastal highway that brought him from Newport to Netarts, looking out across the bay.
“I think this is the prettiest bay in the Northwest,” he muses.
Netarts Bay stretches out before him, changing from light to dark blue and back again as it expands from the rocky shoreline. It’s an early September day typical of the Pacific Northwest coast — sunny and windy with a chilly dew in the air.
Barely a foot from where Barton stands, the road drops down into the bay — a rocky, gradual slope maybe five feet long leading down into the bright blue water. At the bottom of the slope, a white pipe hums as it sucks in water from the bay, transporting it underneath Barton’s feet, under the highway, and back to the hatchery some 200 feet from the bay.
Less than a decade after the small business balanced dangerously on the edge of ruin, the hatchery is surviving. Up at Taylor Shellfish, things are markedly better, too — the company posted record production in 2009. In 2013, the Washington state legislature set aside millions of dollars in the state budget dedicated to combating the problem that Dick Feely and the team of scientists detected so near the coast back in 2007. In recent years, representatives from Washington have traveled around the country and the world, teaching other coastal communities about the dangers of and potential solutions to the increase of acidity in ocean waters caused by the absorption of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, also known as ocean acidification.
“It’s one beautiful story of how science and government and industry work together,” Feely said. “This would have never worked out anywhere else, but it works beautifully here.”
But as global carbon dioxide emissions continue to pour into the atmosphere — and seep into the water — other states are beginning to face the threat of ocean acidification in their own waters. By the end of the century, under a business-as-usual carbon emissions scenario, some scientists think the acidity of the world’s oceans could double. If that happens, can the Pacific Northwest’s regional success help guide a global fight against the impacts of ocean acidification?
Alan Barton knows how challenging the oyster business can be.
“You always have trouble in this business, it’s not an easy thing to do. It’s like a miracle if it works,” he said.
But the die-offs he witnessed when he came to Whiskey Creek — a family-run hatchery owned by wife and husband duo Sue Cudd and Mark Wiegard — were different.
“We had two awful years in a row.” Barton said. “And this is a small business, so that’s almost the end.”
Whiskey Creek might be a small business, but it’s a crucial link in the $270 million Pacific shellfish industry. As the second-largest commercial shellfish hatchery on the West Coast, it provides hundreds of small to medium-sized oyster farms with the microscopic larvae they need to make their operations work.
Oysters have been grown commercially on the West Coast since the mid-to-late 1800s, thriving in the brackish water found in the shallow, cool estuaries along the Pacific Coast. By the 1890s, oystermen were pulling 200,000 bushels a year out of the Puget Sound. But the boom was followed by bust, as over-harvesting and declining water quality decimated the native population of Ostrea lurida, or Olympia oysters. In the 1920s, as a way of saving their industry, the West Coast oyster growers began importing Crassostrea gigas, or Pacific oysters, from Japan. The Pacific oysters thrived, and oyster farmers began growing the species in large numbers.
But unlike the native Olympia oyster, the Pacific oyster was never able to reproduce quite as successfully in the wild — so in the 1970s, the shellfish industry began installing hatcheries along the Pacific Coast, in order to supply oyster farmers with the seed needed to sustain their businesses. In 1978, the Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery set up shop next to Netarts Bay, five miles southwest of Tillamook, Oregon. A family-run business, it eventually grew to supply Pacific oyster larvae to 70 percent of the West Coast’s oyster farms stretching from Canada to South America.
When it comes to farming mollusks, Washington state leads the country — in 2005, Washington had 174 aquaculture farms specializing in clams, mussels, geoducks, and oysters, 20 more than second-place Florida. For counties like Pacific and Mason County, along Washington’s coast and the shore of the Puget Sound, the shellfish industry is an economic lifeblood. In Pacific County, the shellfish industry is the largest private employer, responsible — directly or indirectly — for 600 jobs. In Mason County, the shellfish industry is the second-largest private employer, responsible for 625 direct or indirect jobs. Throughout the entire state of Washington, shellfish aquaculture was responsible for 2,710 jobs in 2010, generating $77.1 million in labor income for the state.
“If we don’t produce larvae then there’s farms that go out of business and thousands of jobs gone in those rural communities,” Barton said.
For two years, Barton fought the invisible foe killing the oyster larvae at Whiskey Creek, but nothing seemed to stem the losses. Then he started seeing papers by Dick Feely, describing how anthropogenic carbon dioxide was adding to the naturally carbon dioxide rich water upwelling off the Pacific Coast, increasing the ocean’s acidity.
And Barton started to wonder if the problem with his larvae wasn’t bacteria after all.
Before he started studying carbon in the ocean, Dick Feely studied dirt in the ocean. And while he found it interesting, he also came to realize that it wasn’t necessarily the foundation of an illustrious career in ocean science.
“My boss said I wasn’t going to be able to make a career studying dirt in the ocean,” Feely said from his lab. “And I had to agree with him. So I started to think I wanted to start a program on carbon.”
Feely’s bright blue eyes peered out from behind round glasses as he explained his history with ocean acidification. A glint of mid-morning sunshine shone through the windows of his office at the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, bouncing off of the collection of framed awards that lined the walls. Feely paused before going on, leaned back in his seat, and apologized — he had been up through the night witnessing the birth of his first grandchild, and worried his answers might be suffering from his lack of sleep.
It wasn’t the first time the title of “grandpa” had been applied to Feely — in the field, he is playfully known as the “grandpa of ocean acidification,” largely because he sounded the alarm long before most people thought ocean acidification could become a real problem.
“He’s the guy waving his fist, and everyone thought he was crazy for 20 years,” Barton said.
Ocean acidification is sometimes referred to as “the other carbon problem,” the first carbon problem being global climate change. The two are like siblings, in that they are born from the same thing: An increase in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. And while carbon dioxide in the atmosphere traps heat, driving global warming, some of that carbon dioxide also ends up in the world’s oceans.
About 30 percent of the carbon dioxide that humans release into the atmosphere gets absorbed by the ocean, and when that happens, it reacts with water to form carbonic acid, which is the same thing that gives soda its signature fizz and slightly acidic bite. In the oceans, carbonic acid is not a very stable chemical compound — it tends to split into smaller chemical pieces fairly quickly, forming both a bicarbonate ion and a hydrogen ion. As the concentration of hydrogen ions increases, the pH of the ocean decreases, increasing the acidity of the water. Over the last 250 years, the average pH of upper-ocean has dropped from 8.2 to 8.1 — and while that might look like a relatively small drop, it translates to roughly a 30 percent increase in the concentration of hydrogen ions.
For years, Feely and colleagues conducted surveys showing how carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by humans was changing the chemistry of the oceans. But the 2007 survey was the first time researchers had a real, data-driven sense of just how much anthropogenic carbon emissions were impacting the chemistry of the water off the coast of the Pacific Northwest.
Part of what makes the Pacific Coast an ideal place for oyster farming is something called coastal upwelling, a seasonal event caused by the northerly winds that blow along the coast from early spring to late fall. As the winds funnel down the coast, they create surface currents that flow not only to the south, but also offshore to the west. To balance that offshore flow, cold, nutrient-rich, high-salinity water comes to the surface near the coast from deep in the ocean.
While that water is full of nutrients, it also tends to be old, meaning that it has been absorbing carbon from the decomposition of all the organic matter — the plankton, the sea vegetation, the fish — that has died and sunk to the bottom, releasing carbon dioxide as it breaks down.
It’s in this already carbon-rich environment that anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions come into play. As Simone Alin, an oceanographer working with Feely at the PMEL, explained, the entire system was already dangling on the precipice of having too much carbon dioxide in the water. It only took the slight nudge of human activity to send it over the edge.
“In this system — perhaps because it was naturally poised at the edge of tolerance of a lot of organisms — it doesn’t take a lot of acidification signal to make a bad day worse,” Alin said. “It might not take much to make it pretty challenging for a lot of organisms. I think that’s why we’ve really seen it unfold here first.”
At the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association’s annual meeting in 2008, Barton heard Feely talk about how upwelled, carbon-rich waters and anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions were mixing to increase the acidity of ocean water along the Pacific coast. Thinking that there might be a connection between Feely’s findings and Whiskey Creek’s losses, Barton went back to the hatchery and began pulling together logs, trying to draw correlations between the times when the hatcheries were experiencing losses and wind patterns creating upwelling events.
But the hatchery only had basic pH testing equipment, and Barton quickly realized that while pH was an indicator of ocean acidification, it wasn’t telling the entire story.
“PH by itself wasn’t a good indicator — it’s a quasi indicator that tells how favorable it is for the oysters to make their shell,” Burke Hales, a professor and chemical oceanographer from Oregon State University, explained.
Hales helped Barton and Whiskey Creek measure the carbonate chemistry of their water — the balance of carbonate and bicarbonate — with the same precision that NOAA scientists used for a quarter of the cost.
Alongside George Waldbusser, an ocean ecologist at OSU, Barton and Hales discovered that when the water at Whiskey Creek was low in carbonate ions, the hatchery’s oyster larvae died. That’s because the hydrogen ions that are eventually created when carbon dioxide reacts with seawater do more than just lower the ocean’s pH — they also react with naturally occurring carbonate ions to form bicarbonate, reducing the concentration of carbonate ions in the water. That’s bad news for shellfish, like oysters, that depend on carbonate ions to make their shells.
“Oyster larvae go from no shell to 80 percent of their body being shell in about four hours, and so there’s this huge bottleneck where they need to be able to make shell easily,” Barton said.
Using Hales’ monitoring techniques, Whiskey Creek started to pull water into the hatcheries only when the concentration of carbonate ions was high. It wasn’t a perfect strategy, but it worked — for the first time in years, Whiskey Creek’s production numbers started to improve.
With the success of Whiskey Creek’s monitoring program, other hatcheries and scientists looked to implement the testing of seawater on a larger scale. In the winter of 2009, the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association submitted a proposal to Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), asking for funding to expand the monitoring program to other critically important areas for the commercial shellfish industry.
In Cantwell, the shellfish industry found its first political champion in the fight against ocean acidification. With $500,000 in federal money, the industry was able to put in place a robust monitoring system up and down the Pacific Northwest coast, from the Lummi Hatchery in Bellingham, Washington down to the Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery in Netarts. Altogether, the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association set up seven monitoring stations at five different sites, giving both industry workers and scientists real-time information about the carbonate chemistry of the water.
“Most of the ocean acidification monitoring was going on out there — what’s happening in the ocean, what’s going to happen 50 years down the road,” Barton said. “We said no, we want to monitor here — right out there, at the end of our intake pipe.”
With data coming in daily from the monitoring system, hatcheries were able to install buffer systems — tanks that pump sodium carbonate back into the water to manually raise the concentration of carbonate ions.
“That turned things around almost instantaneously for us in the hatcheries,” Bill Dewey of Taylor Shellfish said. “We went from 75 percent mortality to record production almost overnight.”
But while monitoring and buffering helped save the hatcheries from years of dismal production, everyone knew that they were little more than short-term fixes. As the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide continues to increase, the number of favorable days for oyster spawning will continue to decrease, narrowing from 50 percent of the time to only a quarter of the time.
“What we’ve got is no doubt a temporary workaround,” Dewey said.
And so the shellfish industry continued to sound the alarm, telling their story of near-collapse and adaptation to anyone that would listen — including then-Washington governor Christine Gregoire (D). Jay Manning, now a partner at Cascadia Law Group in Washington, was Gregoire’s chief of staff during a particularly important visit to Taylor Shellfish in 2011. He remembers how Bill Dewey told Gregoire the story of the huge collapses they had suffered in 2007 and 2008, explaining that the problem was related to an influx of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The industry was rebounding, Dewey explained, and had come up with a number of short-term fixes, but its future was still in danger.
Gregoire convened the country’s first Blue Ribbon Panel on Ocean Acidification that following year, and asked Manning if he would serve as chair. All the key players — Dick Feely, Bill Dewey, and Burke Hales’ OSU colleague George Walbusser — were joined by more than 20 scientists, industry professionals, and local and national representatives. Many of the politicians on the panel were from conservative, rural districts. They weren’t the poster children of environmental activism, but were willing to participate because the shellfish industry was a crucial economic driver for their districts — and the threat of losing jobs was enough to bring a bipartisan coalition to the table.
“Industry led the charge, and they had really good people doing it who had pre-established political relationships with these relatively conservative representatives,” Manning said. “They were able to convince them that something had to be done and something had to be done quickly.”
A year later, the Blue Ribbon Panel produced a lengthy report outlining 42 key early actions that the state could take to combat and adapt to ocean acidification.
Shortly thereafter, state senator Kevin Ranker, who represents Orcas Island, set about implementing the recommendations that had come out of the Blue Ribbon Panel. In her parting budget, Gregoire had allotted $3.3 million to address the panel’s top recommendations — Ranker managed to get $1.7 million of that included in the Washington state budget that passed in 2013. That money went towards the creation of the Washington Ocean Acidification Center, based out of the University of Washington, as well as the Marine Resources Advisory Council, a standing committee tasked with advising the state on issues relating to marine resources and ocean acidification. Each year, Ranker continues to include money in the state’s budget dedicated to ocean acidification, and has been able to leverage private money to match the state’s contribution.
“It is working well,” Ranker told ThinkProgress. “It has worked well and it continues to work well. We’re definitely the lead for the country, if not the world.”
The Other Coast
Michael Devin, a marine biologist and shellfish hatchery manager who also happens to serve in the Maine state legislature, has a saying: “Tourists do not come to the coast of Maine for a chicken sandwich. “
It’s a statement that has become his battle cry as he attempts to garner support in Maine’s fight against ocean acidification. As a hatchery manager, he knows about the struggles that Washington and Oregon have had to weather — in 2011, he heard Bill Dewey speak about the Pacific hatcheries’ troubles at a conference in Rockport.
In 2013, Devin submitted a bill to the 126th legislature asking for the creation of an ocean acidification commission, similar to Washington’s Blue Ribbon Panel. It was the first time a legislator on the East Coast had introduced a bill dealing with ocean acidification and, at first, legislators were hesitant to support it.
Tourists do not come to the coast of Maine for a chicken sandwich.
“My own leaders in my own party didn’t even believe it,” Devin, a Democrat, said. “I don’t think they understood what ocean acidification was, and what impact it could have on our fisheries.”
But Devin had a plan to turn the tide in his favor. Like Washington state, commercial fishing is hugely important to Maine’s economy — aside from wood products and tourism, commercial fishing is the state’s largest economic force, with lobster alone contributing as much as $1.7 billion to the state’s economy in 2011. And so Devin, with a singular focus, spent months educating his colleagues on the potential impacts that ocean acidification could have on their commercial fisheries.
Unlike Washington state, however, Maine is currently helmed by a Republican governor, Paul LePage, who once praised climate change as an opportunity for the state to open new shipping routes. Devin knew that relating ocean acidification to climate change wasn’t going to get him anywhere with LePage, or with Maine’s conservative delegation — so, like in Washington, Devin focused his message on jobs.
“I was very adamant about having a laser point focus on ocean acidification and its impacts to commercial fisheries, so that it was a jobs and economy issue,” Devin said. That focus helped the bill come into session, where it eventually passed.
In 2014, Maine became the first East Coast state to establish a commission charged with studying the potential impact of ocean acidification on their commercial industries, notably their lobster fisheries. Throughout the process, the commission looked to Washington for guidance, even designating a subcommittee tasked with reviewing the Washington Blue Ribbon Panel’s work and finding recommendations that could directly translate to Maine. In the end, Maine adopted 23 recommendations outlined in the Washington Blue Ribbon Panel. In February, the commission issued its final report, outlining six steps that the state should take to combat ocean acidification.
Devin is also hoping to pass two bills this upcoming session that take a page out of Washington’s playbook: One would create an ocean acidification monitoring system, the other would establish a coordinating council to ensure the state continues to work toward understanding and mitigating ocean acidification.
“Certainly we are using [Washington] as a template and as an example,” Devin said. “But there are two things that are very different: How we are impacted by ocean acidification and how it occurs, and the resources that we have available to put forward toward it.” With a Republican governor, Devin added, funds for studying ocean acidification — or for implementing adaptation technology — are sparse.
“In a way, I’m envious of what has happened in Washington,” he said.
In a way, I’m envious of what has happened in Washington.
Maine isn’t the only place that has been following Washington’s lead — in 2014, Maryland convened a task force to study the potential impacts of ocean acidification on their waters, and in 2015, the panel released a report calling for expanded monitoring and partnerships between industry and government. Like in Maine, the Maryland report explicitly calls out the Washington Blue Ribbon Panel’s recommendations for mitigation and adaptation.
Across the Atlantic, France’s oyster industry has been suffering massive die-offs since 2008. Earlier this year, a coalition of Washington shellfish experts, including Bill Dewey, visited the country to warn the farmers that it might be more to the story than the bacterial infection they have been blaming for their losses.
“The way we have set things up there, California is trying to set it up down in California, and the East Coast is doing the same thing,” NOAA’s Dick Feely said. “They’re all looking to us to say, ‘How did you accomplish this?’”
The Work Continues
But for all of Washington’s successes, everyone knows that its current set-up is little more than a temporary patch on a growing problem. Without curbing greenhouse gas emissions, the ocean will simply continue to absorb more and more carbon dioxide, increasing its acidity and making it less hospitable to marine life. As a state, Washington is taking steps to reduce its carbon emissions, led largely by Gov. Jay Inslee’s efforts to put a statewide cap on carbon. Bill Dewey and Taylor Shellfish have also become active in the public policy arena, helping champion policies that would curb carbon emissions.
“Human beings have a choice to make, and that choice is are we going to do something about this now, and preserve what we have, or are we just going to burn everything and see what happens,” Feely said. “That’s all our choice, and we have to collectively come to that decision.”
If that doesn’t happen, scientists like Feely and Alin worry that oyster larvae might just be the beginning — scientists at NOAA are beginning to look into how ocean acidification might impact other marine organisms, like pteropods, tiny marine butterflies that are the primary source of food for juvenile salmon during their first year. Preliminary studies have shown that increased acidity in ocean waters can literally eat away at a pteropod’s shell, endangering a critical part of the marine food web. Scientists like Alin are also trying to understand how ocean acidification interacts with things like algae blooms and dead zones, and whether acidification or temperature increase could ramp up the toxicity of potentially harmful blooms.
“There are plenty of indicators suggesting that we don’t want to go down this road,” Alin said.
Back at Whiskey Creek, the September wind has started to kick up. In the afternoon sun, Netarts Bay shimmers beneath the chilly wind.
“I’m not a politico guy,” Barton says, his gaze still fixed toward the bay. He’s not a “wacko liberal,” either, he adds, just a guy that stumbled into a problem that he couldn’t ignore. He doesn’t get joy out of the daily monitoring, out of the endless worrying about the water conditions, out of the technical buffering and scientific fixes. He was studying to be an oceanographer, before becoming a hatchery manager, and had decided against it because he didn’t want to be in front of a computer all day.
He hopes that something will be done, eventually, to curb carbon emissions and stop ocean acidification from getting worse. And while he acknowledges the traction that his industry has with politicians in the Pacific Northwest, he thinks that it will take bigger voices stepping up — people like terrestrial farmers, guys that are “big money” — before policies are put in place that curb carbon emissions for good.
Until then, he explains, there’s only so much he can do. The water keeps getting worse every year, and the hatchery has to keep “checking things off the list,” Barton says, solving the problems as they come.
When asked what keeps him going in the face of those challenges, Barton shrugs.
“Stupidity,” he answers, laughing.
“No, I mean, this is what I love to do,” he says. “I like oysters, you know. I’m not going to stop.”