Puget Sound is becoming threat to shellfish industry

DABOB BAY – It’s a multi-million dollar business that depends on Puget Sound to help it thrive. But, those very waters could be killing the shellfish industry. Scientists say the Sound is becoming more acidic and oysters are dying because of it.

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Deep inside big barrels of water at Taylor Shellfish Farms at Dabob Bay is a marine cash crop. Soon, the larvae inside them will grow into shelled oysters. But, Bill Dewey with Taylor Shellfish Farms says harvesting them hasn’t been easy.

“Well, for the last few years it’s become probably the most dominant issue for the West Coast Shellfish industry. If you don’t have seed you don’t have an industry, we’ve had a major problem producing it,” said Dewey.

That’s because the very waters that are supposed to be nurturing the tiny creatures are instead killing them. Richard Feely with NOAA says Puget Sound is becoming more acidic, more corrosive because the seawater has been absorbing so much man-made carbon dioxide over time.

“When you have the water incoming into the hatchery and it’s very low PH waters it can kill off the larvae of many of our oyster species,” said Feely.

It’s a problem Bill Dewey has seen firsthand.

“When it gets that low the oyster shells on this young oyster larvae in the hatchery start to dissolve, essentially dissolving faster than they can grow a new shell,” said Dewey.

NOAA and the University of Washington are studying the problem through a system of ocean buoys, dozens of them deployed off the Washington and Oregon Coasts.

UW professor Jan Newton says the buoys will collect valuable data for scientists.

“The first of its kind to make measurements off the coast of Washington not only for the Ocean acidification status, but also for oxygen and phytoplankton blooms,” said Newton.

Scientists hope to use the data to figure out patterns in the PH level, so harvesters know the safest time to grow.

Bill Dewey says Taylor Shellfish Farms is using its own high-tech equipment to do the same. What they’ve found so far has been troubling.

“We started to see the PCO2 levels coming up PH dropping, and so we’re worried that we’re going to start to see affects on our production,” said Dewey.

There is no easy fix. Scientists believe the high acid levels we’re seeing right now has been building up in Puget Sound for decades. Bill Dewey believes the best way to protect future generations of oysters is stop polluting the environment right now.

“Even if we change carbon emissions, policies today, we still have got 50 more years of problems coming our way,” said Dewey.

In the meantime with a lot of science and a little good luck these babies will grow into shelled oysters, and harvesters who depend on them can keep thriving too.

NOAA and UW researchers will continue to monitor the acid levels from the ocean buoys. Information will be collected from them over the next few months.

Q13 Fox.com, 2 August 2010. Web site.

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