B.C.’s shellfish industry can’t aid oil spill recovery

West Coast oyster farmers are fielding calls from farmers on the Gulf of Mexico as the work begins to replace the shellfish breeding beds damaged by the massive oil spill.

But while shellfish farmers in the Pacific Northwest are anxious to help, they say they have little to offer.

Climate change has wreaked havoc on seed oyster hatcheries on the west coast, leaving no extra capacity to send to the Gulf shellfish farmers who are looking at totally rebuilding their stock following the explosion April 20 of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig. Though no one knows for sure how much oil has leaked it is estimated to be about 39 million U.S. gallons.

“Our company, and I know others as well, have received calls,” said Bill Dewey of Washington-based Taylor Shellfish farms, the largest producer in the Pacific Northwest and owner of Fanny Bay Oysters, near Buckley Bay just north of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island.

“Unfortunately for us we don’t really have the supply to respond to the increased demand.

“Where we are, we are producing farmed crops which take two to four years to reach maturity and most of those crops are committed to existing customers, so it is hard to shift any portion of our production to meet that new demand.”

It is not just the shellfish wanted in the Gulf, it’s seed oysters too. It’s likely that more than half of the 400,000 acres of private oyster beds and 1.6 million acres of public beds in the Gulf of Mexico can no longer be harvested for what was a $1-billion industry. Scientists also fear generations of larvae and mollusks may be destroyed, some in the cleanup operation itself.

Years of poor performance in the oyster hatcheries in Washington and Oregon mean that no seed oysters are readily available, said Dewey.

“The production in [the hatchery in the Hood Canal] in 2008 was off 60 per cent for oysters and in 2009 was off 80 per cent and the Oregon hatcheries have had similar failures as well,” he said, although this year looks a little better.

The bigger concern is why the hatcheries are struggling.

“Well we don’t know,” Dewey said when asked. “We are trying to figure it out.”

“So we are just hurting for oysters ourselves so we just don’t have the abundance to meet this increased demand.”

B.C. shellfish companies have traditionally bought their seedlings from Washington and Oregon. But because of the challenges of the past few years, they are also buying from Hawaii.

“We are not struggling for product,” said Brian Yip, manager at Fanny Bay oysters.

“We are struggling to make sure that we have a consistent supply and it is not easy.

“So what we are trying to do is to take advantage of the investment and the technology we have to try and overcome the difficulties.”

Taylor Shellfish and others are working with scientists to try and mitigate the losses in hatcheries through technology.

According to a draft report by the Centre for Shellfish Research, in 2007 alone, the B.C. Shellfish Growers Association estimated that 50 per cent of the growers received only half of their seed requirements. This shortage represents an estimated loss of between $5 million to $10 million in farm-gate sales.

According to provincial statistics, in 2008 B.C.’s shellfish industry produced a harvest volume of 7,200 tonnes with an estimated wholesale value of $27 million.

“For the last several years, there has been a fairly serious crisis in the Washington and Oregon industry where they have been having a really hard time getting the larvae to grow and a large part of that is being attributed to ocean acidification,” said Brian Kingzett, the deep-bay field station manager for the Centre for Shellfish Research at Vancouver Island University.

“The current scientific belief is that this is a result of global warming and increasing CO2 in the atmosphere.”

The changes to the Ph level in some places in the ocean makes it impossible for oyster larvae to grow their shells.

Clare Ogilvie, The Province, 25 July 2010. Full article.

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