Fighting ocean acidification, one oyster at a time


The UW is partnering with shellfish growers and others to help fight ocean acidification, which threatens both shellfish and the industry built around them.

Story by: Jackson Holtz // Photos by: Dennis Wise

SHELTON, Washington — At first, Washington shellfish farmers thought it might be bacteria.

Something was causing an usually high mortality rate among the tiny, baby oysters.

“We were having zero survival,” said Diani Taylor, a fifth-generation shellfish farmer. “We were very concerned.”

This was back in 2007. What scientists have since learned is that it wasn’t bacteria killing the molluscs at all. It was the seawater itself. The ocean was becoming more acidified.

But instead of devastating an industry that generates millions of dollars each year, shellfish companies began adapting. The shellfish industry now monitors the pH in hatchery waters and adds soda ash — a harmless additive — when needed to allow the seed clams, oysters and geoduck to thrive.

“It’s made a huge impact,” said Taylor, who grew up working in the Taylor Shellfish family business.

The company, the largest producer of farmed shellfish in the country, has nearly 600 employees working at its hatcheries, farms, processing facilities and restaurants.

Taylor Shellfish and other shellfish farmers now are partners with the University of Washington to collect and share data through EarthLab’s Washington Ocean Acidification Center.

Born from a Washington State Blue Ribbon Panel, the center was established at the UW in 2013 by the Legislature to make sure actions to address ocean acidification have a strong backbone in science. Along with colleagues and collaborators at state and federal agencies, it was up to co-directors Jan Newton and Terrie Klinger to bring the new center to life, ensuring it serves the needs of Washington citizens.

“When we first were funded by the Legislature to stand up the Washington Ocean Acidification Center, there was no precedent. It was exciting to implement the guidance from the panel to build, with our partners, something valuable to the state,” said Newton, a UW oceanographer and professor.

Ocean acidification isn’t just a Washington state issue. It’s a global phenomenon.

Worldwide, the ocean plays an invaluable service to the planet by absorbing nearly 30% of the carbon dioxide produced by human activity. Yet this also drives a series of reactions that change seawater chemistry, and as a result the oceans are becoming more acidified, which poses a suite of problems to some marine organisms, including the tide-tumbled oyster varieties like Shigoku, Fat Bastard and Grand Cru.

oysters on a rack

In Washington, ocean acidification’s threat became visible when those oysters’ seeds were reaching unprecedented mortality rates. That’s because corrosive seawater compromises the ability of shellfish to form their shells, especially in the animal’s early days.

Answers began surfacing when scientists, including those at the Washington Ocean Acidification Center, NOAA and Oregon State University, connected with shellfish growers and other partners, helping solve what initially seemed like an intractable problem.

We’re trying to use the lens of ocean acidification to help solve bigger problems.
Terrie KlingerUW professor of marine and environmental affairs

Now, thanks to the collaborative work between research scientists and shellfish farmers, the industry has new tools to manage corrosive water: real-time monitoring of water conditions at the hatcheries and nearby waters, viewable via the online portal NANOOS; adding buffering agents to incoming seawater; and tracking forecasts of unfavorable water conditions through LiveOcean, a model that forecasts when Washington’s waters are particularly corrosive.

Using a suite of inputs to the model – like ocean currents, weather, water temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen and more – LiveOcean issues a three-day forecast of ocean conditions that are useful to numerous communities, including shellfish farmers, like Taylor Shellfish.

By checking the forecast, farmers can decide if the conditions are favorable to set out baby oysters to start growing in the ocean or if they should wait until conditions improve. All this comes from a free website that provides real-time forecasting data for marine waters across the Pacific Northwest.

With partners, the Washington Ocean Acidification Center works to monitor and model Washington waters, both on the coast and throughout the Salish Sea, which includes Puget Sound. The center emphasizes using results from both monitoring and modeling together to advance knowledge.

In many cases, these tools have allowed shellfish – and the industry – to continue thriving.

Over the years, the center’s approach to research has become even more sophisticated, all while remaining “grounded on the Blue Ribbon Panel recommendations to sustain observations, modeling, and biological experiments relevant to ocean acidification,” Newton said.

Researchers now can start telling the story of how ocean acidification threatens ocean food webs, which underpin the eye-popping amount of wildlife and productivity in Puget Sound.

“We’re trying to use the lens of ocean acidification to help solve bigger problems,” said Klinger, a UW professor of marine and environmental affairs. “We’ve grown since our establishment and are moving from just a focus on, let’s say shellfish, also to include salmon, forage fish, harmful algal blooms and other parts of our ecosystem that are really important to the region.”

Expanding the focus matters because it can answer questions at ecological scales, helping decision-makers better understand the threats to the tiniest creatures in the ecosystem all the way up to the big ones, like the endangered southern resident orca whales.

“Ocean acidification is one issue we can work around,” said Taylor, the shellfish farmer. “The more we learn the more complicated it becomes.”

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This story has been updated to include its original publication date.

Originally published February 25, 2020