Acidic step: outsourcing our oysters

In another apparent casualty of carbon emissions, a local oyster grower has opened a hatchery in Hawaii, finding the waters there more hospitable to fragile baby oysters than Willapa Bay.

We have been spending much time and energy talking about Seattle stuff lost to other places, such as basketball to Oklahoma City and maybe our waterfront trolleys to St. Louis.

But now comes defection news that’s far more alarming. Yet you can bet it won’t touch off anywhere near the same level of outcry or concern.

Our oysters are moving to Hawaii.

Last week, Seattle Times environmental writer Craig Welch reported that life has gotten so bad for some oysters in Northwest waters that part of our shellfish industry has taken a radical, desperate step.

It has decamped to the Aloha State. Goose Point Oysters, grower of shellfish in Willapa Bay for 34 years, opened its new hatchery nearly 3,000 miles away.

The business didn’t go there in search of lower taxes or less red tape. It left for one reason — its home waters have gotten too acidic for oysters to reproduce.

Welch’s story highlighted that oysters can no longer reproduce naturally in Willapa Bay.

The waters of the “Oyster Capital of the World” are too corrosive for baby oysters to survive.

So instead, they will be hatched and nurtured in Hawaii, then mailed over here and put in our water when they are big and strong enough to take it.

The news makes the oyster our canary in a coal mine — or maybe our polar bear (although to be technically accurate, many of “our” oysters were introduced here decades ago from Japan).

The source of the acid is twofold. There are periodic upwellings of more acidic water from the deep. The rest comes from greenhouse gases.

Scientists have forecast for years that burning fossil fuels would make the oceans more acidic. Their only mistake was thinking it wouldn’t happen so fast.

Now apparently we are going to leapfrog around the planet in search of better water. The acidity in Hawaii is lower for a variety of reasons, but it is expected to rise eventually as well, also driven by greenhouse gases, scientists say.

“Sooner or later, we won’t have any place to run,” a Hawaiian aquaculture professor said.

Welch, to his credit, has been beating this same drum for years. “Is the Pacific Ocean’s chemistry killing sea life?” he wrote in 2009. “Puget Sound waters now more corrosive,” he warned in 2010. “Sea life’s acid test,” he wrote again in 2011.

Yet during that same period, the issue of carbon emissions and its effects on the climate and oceans almost completely vanished from the political scene.

President Obama initially pushed to limit greenhouse gases, but rarely mentions it anymore.

Republicans were led in 2008 by a presidential candidate who had been to the Arctic to see firsthand the effects of global warming and had a plan to combat it. But now they mostly mock the subject as a big joke.

Their current candidate, Mitt Romney, was asked about curbing carbon emissions during the GOP primaries, and said this:

“Now I know there is a movement to say that carbon dioxide should be guided or should be managed by the Environmental Protection Agency. I disagree with that. I exhale carbon dioxide. I don’t want those guys following me around with a meter to see if I’m breathing too hard.”

Har! You slay us, Mitt. Or I guess now you slay our oysters.

Global emissions is one of those no-easy-answers problems, so I guess the impulse to punt is understandable.

But the oyster story shows it’s no longer just academic. For the first time, one oyster grower noted, “It’s actually started to impact people.”

Last week we were talking about waterfront trolleys and pro-sports teams being part of the region’s identity.

True, but this goes so much deeper than that. When your oysters have to move to Hawaii, you have begun to cut into the Northwest’s beating heart.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat(at)

Danny Westneat, The Seattle Times. 23 June 2012. Article.

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