The Oyster in the Coal Mine




It’s 8:00 am.  The small bay front town of Willapa Bay is still.  A lone bird in the distance flies across the classic Pacific Northwest landscape of green, lush mountains, dramatic storm clouds, and a skyline of pine trees.  A man with a ceramic coffee cup pulls up to the bay and backs his boat into the water sending out a circle of ripples.  With a push off the dock he climbs in and guides the boat.  He has the stance of a captain as he guides the boat and surveys his land.  He is Mark Wiegardt, owner of Whiskey Creek Oyster Hatchery and one of the largest suppliers of oyster seed, or larvae, on the West Coast.  At a raised bed of sand in the middle of the bay he gets out. Hundreds upon hundreds of oysters stick up out of the sand like crabgrass.  With two baskets in hand he sinks into the mud like sand and starts picking up oysters every few feet.  The sand covers his rubber rain boots, his gloved hands, and pants.  He continues for three hours without a break.  With four generations of oyster farmers behind him, he is used to this kind work.  In 2005 though, he experienced something that none of his ancestors ever witnessed.  He couldn’t keep a single oyster larvae in his hatchery alive past 72 hours.  He wasn’t the only one.  Up and down the Pacific Northwest coast hatcheries have experienced this same unknown larvae death.  For five years it remained a mystery until researchers at OSU discovered the cause.  In short: pollution.  

The cumulative impact of driving a car, turning on a light, plugging in a computer all require the burning of fossil fuels to produce energy. This act releases CO2 into the air. Fifty percent of that CO2 is then absorbed by the ocean. This is a natural process done by our earth to keep atmospheric CO2 levels in balance. Recently however, seawater circulation is bringing up CO2 from 30-50 years ago at levels higher than ever before. Our oceans are inching further higher and further away from their basic to neutral state due to excess CO2 from 50 years ago. Again, this effect is from actions that took place 50 years ago. Last year Earth’s population reached 7 billion. That is over a 50% increase from 50 years ago. We are burning fossil fuels at a rate higher than ever before, and at a level that obviously our ocean and Earth may not have the capacity to absorb.

“This is a real issue,” says assistant professor at OSU in ocean ecology and biogeochemistry George Waldbusser. “This is not a problem that is going to show up 100 years from now. We are dealing with it now.” The reality of this issue is more than obvious for Wiegardt. Whiskey Creek Hatchery just about went out of business back in 2008 due to exoskeletons dissolving before the larvae were mature enough to attach to the oyster shells. This problem impacted oyster farmers all up and down the West Coast. Oyster farms buy oyster seed from hatcheries, like Waldbusser’s, spread the seed over beds of oyster shell in the bay and wait two to five years for the oysters to attach and mature.  

“The changes were so dramatic that we thought that there was a really strong possibility that we were going to go out of business,” says Wiegardt. “Once we stop growing seed for the farmers however, the oyster industry will be in pretty tough shape.” As the largest suppliers of oyster seed in the West Coast, the end of Whiskey Creek Hatchery would have had a ripple effect throughout the whole industry. The West coast oyster industry provides around 3,000 jobs and has a total annual economic impact of about $207 million. Those five years of stressful tests and calculations financially affected more than just Wiegardt and his family.

“We experience a production drop,” says Oregon Oyster Farm owner, Xin Liu. Liu buys 100% of his larvae from Wiegardt, meaning that when Wiegardt could not provide him with healthy oyster seed to plant in the bay, his revenue suffered as well. One of Liu’s workers, Miguel Correo remembers the experience.

“The larvae they sent us were bad,” says Correo. “Sometimes they would already be dead, and now has affected business some.” Seventeen years ago Miguel moved from a small indigenous Aztec community in Mexico to Oregon in search of a job. He found one with Liu and quickly moved up from sorting oysters to the head job of placing the oyster seed in the bay. Today on the small dock in Yaquina Bay, Oregon he sets out in a fishing boat. To the left of the steering wheel hangs a fish net with golf balls dredged up with the oysters. A small GPS tracking system shows a blinking arrow moving closer to a tangled of web of lines. “This is where I have the big ones,” he says as he points at the far edge of the labyrinth looking mass. Those oysters have been in the bay for five years now and are the size of a small football. The ones he is collecting today are a mere two years old and the size of a fist, or smaller. With a glance at his GPS he lowers a massive metallic net attached to a crane into the water. Beneath the depths of the surface, the net is scooping up hundreds of oysters to be brought into the farm and harvested. Miguel is one of those 3,000 workers whose job would be affected were the industry to fail.

Back at Whiskey Creek Hatchery though, on this overcast morning the oysters are abundant and the events of 2008 seem to be just a distant nightmare. With the knowledge of the changing chemistry of the ocean, Oregon State researchers and Wiegardt came up with a plan. With the purchase of expensive monitoring equipment and liters of sodium carbonate, an antacid to neutralize the seawater they take in from the ocean to grow the oysters, the larvae stopped dying and the industry is now on its way to recovery. However, not all shelled organisms can be grown in a lab.

“It’s obviously not addressing the bigger issue of CO2 emissions,” says Waldbusser. “It’s just putting a Band-Aid on it. It’s helping the oyster industry stay afloat, and so it’s a mitigation strategy at the moment to help them continue to produce oyster seed.” Oysters however are a keystone species, meaning that the ocean ecosystem is dependent on their presence and role in the environment as a filter feeder. Without oysters, the whole ocean ecosystem would change just as drastically as the oyster industry would without Whiskey Creek Hatchery. Oysters are the “canary in the coal mine” that signal a problem, and deaths of oyster larvae should be understood as a warning.

“The worry is what is going on in the natural environment,” says Wiegardt.  “There has to be an impact out there. There’s no way around it.” Wiegardt is not waiting around to find out just how high oceanic CO2 levels can get. Once or twice a year, Wiegardt goes to DC to speak in Congress and to representatives about the issues that he, the oyster industry, and humanity are facing. But with every visit he is taken away from his farm and the work four generations before him have done.

“Going to DC is not my idea of an ideal trip,” says Wiegardt “You have to wear a suit which I have a problem with. By the end of the day I’m looking pretty ragged.” After three hours of collecting oysters in the bay, it’s time to bag them and leave them halfway submerged by the shore. Waldbusser steps out of the boat looking tired, but satisfied with todays work.  It’s good to have the hatchery back on it’s feet again, but the reality of a larger, global issue still looms.  He walks up the gravel driveway past the hatchery to his house and stops on the way to get a container of fresh oysters from the garage fridge. Today’s lunch is a special treat. Fried oysters.