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Oyster revival may be shucked

Ocean acidification, linked to climate change, threatens fishery


by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Carbon emissions are causing acidification of the ocean, which could harm the Northwest oyster industry.When it comes to oysters, people either love ‘em or hate ‘em, and there's little in between.

Tobias Hogan understands why: Most people probably tried them first on a dare, or ate them from a can or jar, or a restaurant that didn’t treat them well.

“It was probably a little fishy, or gummy, not a very good experience,” Hogan says.

He aimed to change all that by opening EaT: An Oyster Bar, on Portland’s North Williams Avenue in 2008, along with co-owner Ethan Powell (EaT is a partial acronym for their first names).

The idea was to make uber-fresh and regionally sourced oysters part of Portland’s farm-to-table scene, since they’re considered one of the ocean’s most sustainable seafoods. Wild oyster stocks may be overfished, but locally farmed and harvested oysters thrive in Pacific Northwest waters, don’t drain resources or involve harmful fishing techniques, and help keep estuaries clean by acting as natural filters.

Oysters also perform another key function for the ecosystem: they're considered a "canary in the coal mine," an indicator species that predicts problems for other aquatic life.

Now a new study shows the canary may be ailing.

Trouble ahead?

Oregon State University researchers noticed in April that one oyster hatchery in Oregon’s Netarts Bay had dropped off in production of oyster seed.

That meant oysters were taking longer to reach their larval stage of development, which is part of their cycle of hatching into a farm-ready oyster.

“Ocean acidification is what’s affecting our product — the water’s more acidic,” explains Alan Barton, who works at Whiskey Creek Hatchery in Netarts Bay, where the research centered.

More acidic water — caused by increased carbon dioxide in the air — affects the formation of calcium carbonate, the mineral that oyster shells are made of.

“This is one of the first times that we have been able to show how ocean acidification affects oyster larval development at a critical life stage,” says Burke Hales, an OSU chemical oceanographer and study co-author.

And the culprit appears to be climate change.

“The predicted rise of atmospheric CO2 in the next two to three decades may push oyster larval growth past the break-even point in terms of production,” Hales says.

Every year, the Oregon Coast has an “upwelling,” which means deep water comes up and brings nutrients, Barton explains. The deep water has always been more acidic than surface water because of decaying materials on the ocean floor.

Recently, tests found the water to be .1 pH units lower than it used to be, which translates to 30 percent more acidic. “If there’s more carbon dioxide in the air than the water, the water sucks it up," Barton says. "Fifty years ago, there were a bunch of fossil fuels being burned, it went into the water, meandered around ... and then last year, popped up in a summertime upwelling on the Oregon Coast.”

At Whiskey Creek — which supplies larval seeds to dozens of oyster farms along the West Coast — it’s been a challenge to produce enough larvae.

Luckily, a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration allowed the hatchery to buy some of the world’s best water-chemistry monitoring equipment, which it uses to test the water each day and decide when exactly to pump water in from the bay. “We really need to pump water all day to make money,” Barton says. “But it is a strategy that allows us to break even and get our product out to the industry.”

Oyster farms are big business in Oregon and even more so in Washington. Commercial oyster producers on the West Coast collect $100 million a year in sales, generating an estimated $273 million in economic activity, according to OSU.

Hats off to oysters

One sizzling hot Saturday afternoon in mid-May, the tables outside of EaT were overflowing with oyster shells, lemon wedges, hot sauce bottles and cans of beer.

People didn't come for the sustainable aspect of oysters — they came for the oyster revolution of sorts that's just started to catch on in Portland.

Until now, “Oysters in this town haven’t been too popular” among chefs and foodies, unlike in Seattle, Hogan says. “Everybody’s been into (pork).”

A triple-wide line of adventurous oyster enthusiasts — and the oyster-curious — snaked outside the doorway and down the sidewalk on North Williams Avenue, to the end of the block.

Oyster Fest wasn't just a unique chance to sample the distinct varieties of both wild and farmed oysters, but to meet the oyster farmers from around the region who supply to local restaurants.

Farmers came from Oregon Oyster Farms in Newport; Hayes Oyster Farms in Tillamook; Hama Hama Oyster Farms in Lilliwaup, Wash.; Chelsea Shellfish Farm in Olympia, Wash.; and Hog Island in Marshall, Calif.

Adam James, head oyster farmer at Hama Hama, says he was “rejuvenated” to serve his product directly to his consumers, a rare opportunity. He figures he shucked about 70 dozen oysters in three hours that day. He offered both wild and farmed varieties of Hama Hamas, known for their size, strength and firmness.

Just as whiskey, wine and beer take on the qualities of their fruit, hops, barrel, age, chemistry and other factors, oysters have distinct flavor profiles related to their water chemistry and other factors — which is why connoisseurs leave off the hot sauce.

At Oyster Fest, “Everybody there was able to taste the difference,” James says. “It still kind of blows my mind.”

Hogan estimates he orders about 4,200 oysters per week, from six to eight farms on the West Coast and the East Coast, where oysters thrive in the icy Canadian and New England waters. He skips Gulf of Mexico oysters, which he finds are “cheap, huge, and grow fast,” but the costs are driven up by the need to quickly transport them cross-country. As a result, he says, gulf oysters cost “just as much as the ones we can get elsewhere, which have a superior flavor profile.”

James, whose grandfather started Hama Hama in 1922, says the demand for oyster farming has doubled over the past 10 years, as oyster bars pop up in places like Bangkok and St. Paul, Minn.

“People are becoming more aware of the energy that goes in and out of food systems,” he says, especially for raising cattle. “For beef, you have to feed cattle with hay all winter.”

The surge in oysters’ popularity has made it hard to keep up with demand.

James’ farmers pull the oysters out of the water at low tide in the morning, set them in coolers of ice, box them up around noon and get them on the UPS truck for delivery to Portland by 2 p.m. They arrive in town about 24 hours after harvest.

Last year, the problems with oyster seeds at Whiskey Bay put his company about a year behind in production, James says.

Despite the acidification issue, James isn’t panicking yet about looming climate change.

“We’re not selling the farm,” he says. “It’s a family farm. Maybe we’ll start selling seaweed or something.”