Like most farmers, shellfish growers do what we do in part because we love that our livelihoods are connected so deeply to the natural world.
That’s why so many of us are committed to conservation issues — caring for the ocean environments that we work in is important to us not just professionally, but personally. Shellfish growers have long been concerned about and involved in a lot of issues, from water quality to invasive species. Now it is becoming increasingly clear that we have “front row seats” to a sobering drama brought to us by the world’s addiction to fossil fuels.
The scientific evidence linking changes in our climate and the chemistry of our oceans to greenhouse gas emissions is irrefutable. Period. As one who paid attention to predictions made 20 years ago by climate scientists, I find it especially compelling that those forecasts have been so accurate. Atmospheric and ocean temperatures are warming. Sea level is rising. Seawater is becoming more acidic. Storms are more intense, causing more damage and more freshwater runoff into coastal waters. The effects of these changes are already costing us, and while the implications for our future are unclear, they unquestionably merit our close consideration.
So just how is carbon pollution costing us? By now we all know about the near–collapse of eyed larvae production on the West Coast 10 years ago. I have certainly trumpeted the problems we experienced at Mook Sea Farm, on the East Coast, a few years later. It is true that there are regions where hatcheries seem to produce larvae, and natural recruitment of Eastern oysters occurs even when CaCO3 (calcium carbonate) saturation levels are apparently very low.
But it is also true that in the Pacific Northwest, and at least for Maine’s Damariscotta River on the East Coast, satisfactory larval production depends on buffering larval cultures. The costs to those of us affected by this have been real and substantial. Clearly there is more research to be done if we are to understand the impacts of ocean acidification, how future production and recruitment may be affected in different coastal waters, and what coping strategies we might employ.
Warming waters pose their own set of threats and questions. Control of Vibrio illnesses and shellfish safety is now undeniably a major cost for the shellfish industry. While some may doubt the link between increases in Vibrio abundance and increasing temperatures, there is strong anecdotal evidence, as well as peer–reviewed research, making this connection. In Maine, we always believed we were “exempt” from the big oyster diseases because of our long, cold winters, yet Damariscotta River oyster farms were pretty much wiped out by MSX in 2010. In the preceding year (or two) oyster seed was illegally imported from an area where MSX was endemic. This was followed by the warmest winter I remember since starting the business in 1985. Then the oysters started dying. We need to understand if this kind of event is coincidence or if it is related to climate change.
Consensus is growing in the scientific community that warmer surface temperatures caused by climate change are leading to more and more intense storms, especially in the North Atlantic. The body of science that is able to quantify the increases in storm intensity and storm damage due to global warming is growing. We are seeing ever increasing damage, not only from winds and flooding, but also from storm tides exacerbated by rising sea level. For shellfish growers, increased runoff can mean water with a lower pH and costly harvest closures to ensure shellfish safety. Big storms disrupt transportation and sale of our products to customers shut down by flooding and storm damage.
The need for action is urgent. Sadly, even though a substantial majority in the United States believe that climate change is a problem and humans are causing it, those who can and should act to reduce carbon dioxide emissions are gridlocked. The U.S. Congress failed to pass a carbon cap–and–trade bill in 2009, and efforts to create federal policies that might curb carbon emissions have been thwarted at every turn. The hope that we might see action when the United States joined over 180 other nations in the Paris Agreement on climate change faded quickly when not even two years later the Trump administration announced its intent to leave the Paris Agreement and commenced the rollback of many regulations designed to control pollution, including carbon dioxide.
Consumers care about where their food comes from, and whether the foods they love will continue to be available to them. Policy makers recognize that seafood farming and fisheries are a significant source of jobs in coastal communities. Recognizing this, a group of seven growers, from both the East and West Coasts, have joined forces with The Nature Conservancy to form the Shellfish Growers Climate Coalition (SGCC).
The SGCC is committed to shining a light on how climate change is already having a significant effect on food production in the United States, and using the stories of shellfish growers to start a broader conversation about the urgent need for climate action.
We’ll be talking more about the SGCC at this year’s National Shellfisheries Association meeting in Seattle, and all seven of our members will be out in full force to celebrate our launch at the Billion Oyster Party in Brooklyn, N.Y., on April 27. In the next ECSGA newsletter we will fully describe the coalition and its launch. Our hope is that we’ll be able to convince you to join us.
The SGCC is looking for more members because this problem affects shellfish growers in every location and of every size, and because we may be in a unique position to grow the coalition to include other food sector companies across the country. Your participation in the coalition is vital to demonstrate to the public and to lawmakers that our industry as a whole is deeply concerned, about not just its prosperity, but its very survival. We need to demonstrate that climate change is not some nebulous concept of concern only to “environmentalists,” but that it is a real and present danger to businesses and local economies.
– By Bill Mook, Mook Sea Farm, Walpole, ME
For more information, reach out to one of our members, listed below, or our partner at The Nature Conservancy, Sally McGee.
Rappahannock Oyster Company
Taylor Shellfish Farms
Fishers Island Oyster Farm
The Nature Conservancy
Lissa James Monberg
Hama Hama Company
Mook Sea Farm
Hog Island Oyster Co.
Island Creek Oysters