It was in 2002 that the family-owned Nisbet Oyster Company first noticed a drop in their adult oyster populations. By 2012, their oyster production had declined by 42 percent.
This is a serious problem for Washington, which is home to one of the most productive oyster farming areas in the United States, Willapa Bay. According to the Washington government, the shellfish industry employs over 3,200 people and provides an annual economic contribution of $270 million statewide.
The sizable drop in oyster populations forced the state to act, and it convened a Blue Ribbon panel to assess the root of the problem in late 2012.
A report by a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, ocean researchers and shellfish growers found ocean acidification to be the most likely cause. Increased levels of carbon dioxide absorption have lowered the pH level of seawater across the globe, but Washington suffers the effects most acutely because its coast also experiences carbon upwelling from the ocean floor.
Heightened levels of CO2 alter ocean chemistry, reducing the overall level of calcium carbonate minerals in the water. These minerals are necessary in the formation of oyster shells – as well as those of coral, sea urchins, clams and calcareous plankton. Businesses like the Nisbet Oyster Company suffered the consequences, but so too did hatcheries where oyster larvae were raised.
The Nisbets have adapted by starting their own hatchery in Hawaii, where the effects of ocean acidification have not been as intense. They now expect to use oyster larvae exclusively from this location.
Meanwhile, the state of Washington is implementing measures recommended by its Blue Ribbon panel. But Kathleen Nisbet-Moncy, the plant manager of the Nisbet Oyster Company, says the federal government needs to get involved. “[T]hey need to really put it in their forefront and acknowledge that it’s here and start working with people to come up with a solution to mitigate these problems,” she told Al Jazeera. “There are a lot of industries on the coast that this is going to begin to affect. They’ve seen it in crab, they’ve seen it in other species as well.”
The head of the Nisbet Oyster Company, Dave Nisbet, believes this is just the beginning. “I think the oyster industry is kind of the canary in the mineshaft. …What happens when things get even more acidic? That needs to be identified. I’m not sure we know the answer yet.”