Changes in ocean put shellfish business in jeopardy

EVERETT — Between 2005 and 2009, billions of oyster larvae began dying at hatcheries around the state before anyone knew what was going on or could do anything about it.

The state’s $270 million shellfish industry, which employs about 3,200 people, is in danger.

One oyster farm, Goose Point Oysters in Willapa Bay, has begun raising oyster larvae in Hawaii because it can no longer grow them here.

The reason, scientists say, is ocean acidification.

“The problem’s not going away,” said Ian Jefferds, general manager and co-owner of Penn Cove Shellfish in Coupeville.

On top of pollution and loss of habitat, rising acidity in Washington waters is the latest hazard faced by marine life, including the lucrative shellfish and fishing industries.

Acidification of marine waters is caused primarily by the ocean’s absorption of carbon emissions, scientists say. Other human activities, such as agricultural runoff, contribute. The oceans are rapidly becoming more acidic after thousands of years of stability, scientists say.

The Northwest is particularly vulnerable to the problem because it receives naturally upwelling carbon-laden water from deep in the Pacific Ocean.

Terry Williams, commissioner of fisheries and natural resources for the Tulalip Tribes, was concerned enough about the phenomenon to be one of several people to approach former Gov. Chris Gregoire in 2011 to form a panel to study the problem.

The 28-member panel, called the Washington State Blue Ribbon Panel on Ocean Acidification, included scientists, representatives of environmental groups, tribes and the business community, and current and former government officials.

Reducing the effect of human activities is one place to start, the panel concluded. Carbon emissions represent a much broader and tougher challenge.

Still, work has to begin now, experts say.

“Godzilla is still small. Let’s not wait until he’s big,” said Brad Warren, director of the Global Ocean Health Program, a Seattle-based group formed to address ocean acidification and its effect on fisheries.

Warren, a member of the state panel, spoke at an informational meeting on the topic in Everett last Thursday.

About 120 people attended. Panel members have been conducting the meetings around the state by request of local officials.

The committee made several recommendations, including reducing agricultural runoff into local waters; investigating water treatment methods to control the problem in targeted areas, and ultimately, finding ways to reduce carbon emissions from fossil fuels.

Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, served on the state panel. She’s convinced ocean acidification is a legitimate threat and is concerned for Penn Cove shellfish.

Still, she would have liked more effort to involve the agricultural community before recommending that farm waste be reduced.

“You have to look at this holistically,” Smith said. “We need to recognize that we need both; we need aquaculture and we need agriculture.”

Smith said the panel’s call for stricter regulations on pollutants, while not yet specific, are getting ahead of the game.

Bill Sheets, Herald Net, 1 February 2013. Full article.


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