Investigate West reports the following on the growing issue of ocean acidification in Washington State’s Puget Sound and how it is impacting shellfish farming.
Bill Taylor’s first memory is of falling out of a boat at about age 3.
Taylor’s father was working the family shellfish farm in the chill waters of Puget Sound, Washington’s scenic inland sea, with his young son in tow. It all happened pretty fast, but fortunately Taylor’s dad plucked him out of danger’s way.
Nearly 60 years later, Bill Taylor is trying to figure out how to rescue his family’s fifth-generation shellfish-farming operation from an ocean that’s turning more acidic due to global climate change. This save is going to be a lot harder.
It’s a calamity that threatens Washington state’s $270-million-a-year shellfish industry. And it has the Taylors — after a century-plus producing shellfish in the Evergreen State — exploring every potential angle to steel their mollusks against the corrosive effects of ocean acidification.
The Taylors did not set out to fight climate change. But after decades of muddy hard work building a shellfish-farming empire along the shores of Puget Sound, Taylor Shellfish Farms was hit with a crisis: The rate of survival for their oyster larvae — the free-swimming, nearly invisible infant oysters — plunged roughly three-quarters.
For oyster growers, this is huge. If an oyster grower doesn’t have baby oyster larvae, there’s no “seed” to morph into the prized mollusks served on the half shell at oyster bars around the world.
Bill Taylor’s simple bottom line: “Without seed, you’re not in business any longer.”
Walking into Taylor Shellfish’s headquarters in the logging town of Shelton, you might forget the company’s elite status among shellfish producers. Tucked off Highway 101, Taylor’s offices are housed in a modest, mid-century rambler, formerly home to Bill Taylor’s Uncle Edwin and Aunt Norma. The conversion is somewhat incomplete; the kitchen still is outfitted with aged cupboards and appliances that recall the 1950s. Out back, the home’s large former chicken coop serves as a retail-sales space and a shellfish processing facility.
But despite the humble trappings, the truth is that Bill Taylor, along with his younger brother Paul and brother-in-law, Jeff Pearson, are co-owners of the largest farmed shellfish producer in the nation.
The family business employs 750 workers, including Bill’s two daughters and five nieces, nephews and their spouses. Taylor Shellfish has operations in Washington, California, Hawaii, British Columbia, Hong Kong and Fiji. The company flies its renowned oysters, clams, geoduck and mussels to restaurants and markets internationally.
But oysters don’t happen without oyster babies. On the shores of an evergreen-lined bay in a canal of Puget Sound, the company produced more than 6 billion oyster larvae in 2016. Water from the canal is pumped to indoor larval tanks. In the swirling water, the mollusk babies look like nothing more than a cloud of silt. Over two to three weeks, they devour algae and steadily build their pearly shells.
Even in modernized shellfish facilities, raising mollusks is tricky business. Bacteria, viruses, poisonous algae, warm temperatures, salinity fluctuations — all are potential killers of young oysters.
“The water is complex and the shellfish are highly sensitive,” Taylor said.
When the Taylors’ larval crisis hit in the mid-to-late 2000s, other growers were struck, too. Whiskey Creek, a well-established operation based on the Oregon coast, lost oysters at even higher rates. The hatchery reported that the baby larvae were dissolving in their tanks. The shellfish farmers struggled to pinpoint the culprit.
“You’re kind of like a blind man trying to find your way out of the kingdom,” Taylor said. “You’re trying to feel around and find what is it that’s causing the problem.”
After considering their suspects, the growers settled on an offender: a bacterium later identified as Vibrio coralliilyticus. They quickly installed more sophisticated filtration systems at their hatcheries to purge the invader, hoping that would save their microscopic broods.
It didn’t. In fact, even more larvae died the next year. Vibrio, while not entirely innocent, was likely only an accessory to the deaths. What was the root cause, though?