Officials in Washington state’s Shellfish Program have
identified a clear pathway to meet a state goal of restoring 10,800
net acres of shellfish beds to a harvestable condition by 2020.
The 10,800-acre target, established by the Puget Sound
Partnership, was considered overly ambitious by many people when
the goal was approved in 2011. Many still believe that the
shellfish restoration effort will go down in flames, along with
other goals, such as increasing chinook salmon and killer whale
populations by 2020.
In reporting on the Shellfish Implementation Strategy, a
document still under development, I’ve learned that the goal is
within reach if enough of the ongoing recovery efforts around Puget
Sound continue to make progress. Please check out my latest stories
the shellfish back” and “Closing
in on the magic number in Samish Bay,” both published in the
Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.
Our native Olympia oyster may seem small and meek, but its
slow-growing nature may serve it well under future conditions of
ocean acidification, according to a new study.
In fact, the tiny Olympia oysters appear to reproduce
successfully in waters that can kill the offspring of Pacific
oysters — a species that grows much larger and provides the bulk of
the commercial oyster trade in Washington state.
Unlike Pacific oysters, Olympias don’t begin forming their
shells until two or three days after fertilization, and the
formation progresses slowly, helping to counteract the effects of
corrosive water, according to the author of the new study, George
Waldbusser of Oregon State University.
Betsy Peabody of Puget Sound Restoration Fund said people who
work with Olympia oysters have long suspected that they may have
some advantages over Pacific oysters. Olympia oysters keep their
fertilized eggs in a brood chamber inside the shell until the
larvae are released into the water about two weeks later.
In contrast, the eggs of Pacific oysters are fertilized in the
open water and the resulting larvae must fend for themselves right
While the brood chamber may protect the larvae from predators,
the new study showed that the brood chamber does not protect
against ocean acidification. Corrosive water still circulates
through the mother’s shell, exposing the larvae.
To test how Olympia oysters would do in open waters, the
researchers grew baby oysters outside the brood chamber where they
were exposed to acidified water, noted Matthew Gray, a former
doctoral student in OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. He
is now conducting research at the University of Maine.
“Brooding was thought to provide several advantages to
developing young, but we found it does not provide any
physiological advantage to the larvae,” Gray said in an
OSU news release. “They did just as well outside the brood
chamber as inside.”
It appears that a major difference in the development of Pacific
and Olympia oysters lies in their reproductive strategies,
including differences in managing their energetics.
“Pacific oysters churn out tens of millions of eggs, and those
eggs are much smaller than those of native oysters, even though
they eventually become much larger as adults,” Waldbusser said.
“Pacific oysters have less energy invested in each offspring.
Olympia oysters have more of an initial energy investment from Mom
and can spend more time developing their shells and dealing with
The research team found that energy stores in young Pacific
oysters declined by 38.6 percent per hour, compared to 0.9 percent
in Olympia oysters. Pacific oysters put their energy into building
their shells seven times faster than Olympia oysters. The exposure
to acidified water affects shell development. While the larval
oysters may get through the shell-building stage, they often don’t
have enough energy left to survive, Waldbusser said.
Restoration Fund has been working for nearly 20 years to
restore Olympia oysters at 19 priority locations throughout Puget
Sound. The new study lends credence to the effort and support for a
recommendation by the 2012 Blue
Ribbon Panel on Ocean Acidification. The panel called for
restoring the native oyster to Puget Sound to build resilience into
the ecosystem, according to Betsy Peabody.
“It was a recommendation that came out before we had the
critical science to support it,” Betsy told me. “He (Waldbusser)
has just given us the underlying research that supports that
recommendation. Our grandchildren may be cultivating Olympia
oysters rather than Pacific oysters.”
The panel, appointed by former Gov. Chris Gregoire, called for
maintaining the genetic diversity of native shellfish to provide
the species a fighting chance against ecological changes brought on
by climate change.
Benefits of the Olympia oyster, including so-called ecosystem
services, are described in an article by Eric Wagner in the
of Puget Sound. Healthy oyster reefs offer benefits such as
cleaning up the water, protecting shorelines from erosion and
increasing habitat complexity, which can expand the diversity of
So far, Puget Sound Restoration Fund has restored 50 acres of
shellfish to Puget Sound, working toward a goal of restoring 100
acres by 2020.
Oyster hatcheries in Washington state underwent a temporary
crisis a few years ago when Pacific oyster larvae were dying from
acidified seawater pumped into the hatcheries. The water still
becomes hazardous at times, but careful monitoring of pH levels has
allowed hatchery operators to overcome the problem. When the water
in an oyster hatchery moves beyond an acceptable pH level,
operators add calcium carbonate to alter the pH and support the
oyster larvae with shell-building material.
Bill Dewey of Taylor Shellfish Farms said older oysters might be
affected in the future as ocean acidification progresses. “We know
things are going to get worse,” he told me.
Because of their small size and high cost of production, Olympia
oysters will never overtake the Pacific oyster in terms of market
share, Bill said, but they are in high demand among people who
appreciate the history of our only native oyster and its unique
The new research by Waldbusser raises the question of whether
the highly commercial Pacific oysters could be bred so that their
larvae grow slower and perhaps overcome the effects of ocean
Joth Davis, senior scientist for Puget Sound Restoration Fund
and senior researcher for Taylor Shellfish, said the market is
strong for a smaller Pacific oyster, so most growers would not
object to one that grows more slowly with greater survival.
Meanwhile, efforts are underway to maintain the genetic
diversity of Olympia oysters and other native species, as growers
begin to think about cultivating more natives. Transplanting
species from one area to another and boosting their populations
with hatcheries creates a potential to override local populations
and weaken overall genetic diversity, Joth said.
Geoduck clams, which can be started in hatcheries and grown on a
large scale, don’t appear to be genetically distinct from one place
to another in Puget Sound, Joth said.
Researchers have found some evidence that Olympia oysters may be
genetically distinct when comparing one area of Puget Sound to
another. But finding genetic differences does not always mean the
population is uniquely adapted to that area, Joth said. Variations
might relate to a random population that settles in a specific
location. Sometimes it takes careful study to make sense of the
Rich Childers, Puget Sound shellfish manager for the Washington
Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the state currently has no
firm rules for transferring native species from one place to
another. With growing interest in cultivating Olympia oysters, sea
cucumbers and other native species, the agency is opening
discussions about what kind of controls might be needed.
“We’ve learned lessons from salmon that you can’t spread
everything from hell and gone,” Rich said. “Should we be looking at
some management or hatchery guidelines that would help maintain
genetic diversity? Should we have laws or policies? These are the
questions that are just starting to surface.”
Nobody was really talking about designating an official
“Washington state oyster” until 14-year-old Claire Thompson came
along. Now the state Senate has approved a bill, on a 47-1 vote, to
list the Olympia oyster as the state’s official oyster.
Claire is an eighth grader at Olympia’s
Nova School, which requires a yearlong project involving
something that students care deeply about and can make a
difference. Claire, who hopes to become a marine biologist or
oceanographer, developed a sense of history for the once-prominent
Olympia oyster, as we learned from her testimony before the Senate
Governmental Operations Committee.
The full testimony on SB
6145 falls between 40:00 and 51:00 in the
video on this page.
“Pollution near historic beds caused many closures of the
fishery and rallied the oyster farmers to fight for the earliest
pollution control regulations for clean water and cleanup,” Claire
told the committee.
Ostrea lurida, the scientific name for the Olympia
oyster, is the only native oyster to the region. The Pacific
oyster, imported from Japan in the 1920s, makes up most of the
production today, but the tiny Olympia is making a comeback as a
unique delicacy with natural ties to the region.
Claire talked about ocean acidification, caused by excess carbon
dioxide in the atmosphere, and its ongoing threat to the ecological
health of Puget Sound, Hood Canal and other bays and estuaries.
“Ostrea lurida,” she said, “stands as a living symbol
of Washington’s history, from the earliest Native Americans through
the pioneers down through statehood to the present day, deserving
protection as our native oyster. Please join me in fighting to
protect not only our native oyster but our waters as well.”
Claire is the daughter of Rowland Thompson, lobbyist for Allied
Daily Newspapers of Washington, who encouraged her to develop her
project and speak before the Legislature.
Jim Jesernig of Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association said
he supports the bill, even though it came as a surprise to his
“We have been very pleased working with Claire,” Jesernig said.
“It’s very interesting. From the industry, we did not see this. We
were working on derelict vessels and a whole bunch of things going
on. Claire has worked with folks in Willapa Harbor and the South
Sound. We would like to support this in any way.”
If next approved by the house, the Olympia oyster will become
the official state oyster, joining:
The orca, the official marine mammal;
The Olympic marmot, the official endemic mammal;
The willow goldfinch, the official bird;
The steelhead trout, the official fish; and
The common green darner dragonfly, the official insect.
Since then, Puget Sound Restoration Fund has helped rebuild
native oyster populations in many bays, with one of the greatest
successes in Liberty Bay near Poulsbo. Betsy Peabody, executive
director, told me this morning that her group has great hopes for
success in Dyes Inlet near Silverdale and in Port Gamble Bay in
North Kitsap. A new oyster hatchery in Manchester is expected to be
in operation later this year.
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has developed a
long-term restoration plan for the Olympia oyster with 19 areas
listed for habitat restoration:
Bellingham Bay (South) Shoreline, Portage Island, and Chuckanut
Port Gamble Bay
Union River/Big and Little Mission Creek(s) deltas
Liberty Bay and sub-inlets
Dyes Inlet and sub-inlets
Point Jefferson-Orchard Point complex of passages and inlets
Harstine/Squaxin Islands complex of passages and inlets
Occasionally, I’m caught totally unaware of some bit of
information that I come across in a newspaper or magazine. Such was
the case with reporter Craig Welch’s story in
Sunday’s Seattle Times, which was reprinted in the Kitsap Sun
The story was about abalone, a mollusk that populates rocky
reefs in various locations throughout our inland sea. I’ve been
hearing about efforts to restore abalone populations, and I’ve
wondered what happened to these creatures. After all, it hasn’t
been legal to fish for them for 15 years.
Craig Welch briefly discussed a poaching network in his story,
but this was what caught my attention:
Thirty years ago, one-fifth of abalone were small. Today only 2
percent are. Average abalone shell sizes have grown larger. “We
thought, ‘Wouldn’t poachers want the biggest ones?’ ” said Don
Rothaus, a Fish and Wildlife biologist.
Then they hit upon an obvious answer: The creatures were getting
old but not reproducing. The same peculiar biological tic that made
abalone easy prey for thieves also, in the end, appeared to be
Poachers weren’t taking more because abalone no longer clustered
in quantities big enough to make it worth their while.
So many abalone had been removed from Puget Sound that those
remaining lived too far apart to congregate. They couldn’t get
close enough to mate.
And so the pinto abalone found in Washington waters are on the
edge of extinction, listed as a “species of concern” by the
National Marine Fisheries Service. That listing means that the
species might qualify for a listing as “threatened” or “endangered”
if more data about their populations and life cycle were available.
NMFS fact sheet.)
After reading the Times story, I called Betsy Peabody of
Sound Restoration Fund to get the latest information on the
abalone restoration program. She was the first to tell me about the
abalone effort three years ago. It quickly became clear from our
conversation that a lot has been happening with the involvement of
people from all kinds of organizations.
Researchers are developing hatchery populations and working hard
to make sure that they are not decreasing the diversity of abalone
or introducing disease to native populations.
An out-planting of the abalone is planned for this summer in
several locations. Like the effort to restore Olympia oysters to
Puget Sound (See
Kitsap Sun, Oct. 2, 2006), the effort to bring back the abalone
is expected to be long and involved — but at least it has