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THE LOCATION: Pacific Northwest

THE STORY: Looking for Oysters in Oregon

Something was killing off Sue Cudd's baby oysters. At her Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery, the oyster larvae would mysteriously stop feeding, stop growing and die. For months, her family watched its livelihood plummet. And the problems weren't confined to her family's business.

woman in front of vats

Photo: Eric Scigliano for OnEarth.org Co-owner Sue Cudd among tanks of oyster larvae at the whiskey creek hatchery.

Cudd's hatchery supplies other shellfish growers with baby oysters. These oyster farmers found themselves in the same position as a tomato farmer who is ready to plant but can't buy any seeds. The bottleneck rippled through an industry that pumps $270 million into Washington's economy alone. "It was devastating," Cudd says. "I heard how it was ruining people."

Scientists have linked the massive oyster die-offs to corrosive water made worse by ocean acidification, a phenomenon caused by rising carbon dioxide concentrations driven by fossil fuel emissions in the atmosphere. The impact of too much CO2 could profoundly change the marine food web. Many prized finfish, like the region's iconic salmon and halibut, rely on a steady diet of shellfish.

For Cudd, knowledge was the most important weapon in the fight to save her business. The federal government doling out $500,000 on a monitoring network that measures pH, carbon dioxide and other seawater variables has kept the Northwest shellfish industry alive – for now. With the system, oyster farmers can identify and avoid harmful corrosive waters at their intake valve. Thanks to the new equipment and favorable weather, Cudd's oyster hatchery has since hit record production levels.

THE CONCERN

In 2007, oceanographer Richard Feely and his colleagues made a startling discovery. Their assumption was that ocean acidification in this part of the world would stay confined to deeper waters for decades. But then those scientists got in a boat and went exploring along the continental shelf off the Pacific Coast, where an abundance of sea life lives. Decades before anyone expected, they found shallow pockets of corrosive water all the way from British Columbia to Baja California.

Upwelling

This phenomenon occurs when natural weather patterns churn up deep, acidic water onto coastlines.

Oyster Die-Off

High mortality and reproductive failures are linked to elevated ocean acidity.

Algae Blooms

Pollution from fertilizers and leaky sewage systems cause algae to bloom. The algae decompose, raising acidity levels.

Acidification Hotspot

Credit: Illustrations of sea life © B. Guild Gillespie / www.chartingnature.com

illustration of oysters

Credit: Illustration © B. Guild Gillespie / www.chartingnature.com

THE NUMBERS

The Pacific Northwest shellfish industry at a glance:

  • $270 million in annual economic output
  • 3,200 jobs generated
  • $3.3 million in revenue from licenses to harvest clams and oysters in Washington

Economic contributions of commercial fishing and seafood processing:

  • $3.9 billion in personal income in Washington or 2% of the state's earnings
  • $518 million in personal income in Oregon or the equivalent of 16,000 jobs
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