Tag Archives: Oysters

Olympia oysters fare better than Pacifics in acidified oceans

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.

Olympia oysters // Photo: Wikimedia commons
Olympia oysters // Photo: Wikimedia commons

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 away.

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 acidified water.”

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.

The study, funded by the National Science Foundation, was published in the Journal of Limnology and Oceanography.

Puget Sound 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 Encyclopedia 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 sea life.

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 taste.

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 acidification.

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 differences.

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.”

Speaking to the Navy about Hood Canal oyster deaths

I guess we can finally put to rest the question of how thousands of oysters got washed up high on the beaches of Hood Canal on Aug. 11, causing many to die in the summer sun.

Darrell Hogue of Seabeck wades into Hood Canal at Scenic Beach State Park to rescue oysters lodged high on the beach, where an estimated 178,000 were stranded.
Kitsap Sun photo by Larry Steagall

Without explicitly blaming the USS Port Royal for the problem, Navy officials said they would take steps to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. Check out my story from Wednesday’s Kitsap Sun.

A lot of Hood Canal residents believed the Port Royal was to blame, because they saw this massive 567-foot guided-missile cruiser operating at high speeds off their shores. They naturally connected the ship to the big waves hitting their beaches at the same time. I tended to believe the local people, but I wasn’t sure how anyone could actually prove that the Navy was to blame.

Perhaps the best evidence came in a video I first revealed to you in Watching Our Water Ways on Aug. 27, thanks to the taping by Gary Jackson in Dabob Bay.

After this, I tried to get some simple questions answered by the Navy, but I was frustrated by the fact that three different Navy groups were playing a role. Each one kept referring me to another, and it appeared that nobody really wanted to talk about it.

For example, the ship itself belonged to the Third Fleet, so my questions were directed to a spokesman in San Diego. Because damage claims were involved, I was directed to a spokesman for the Admiralty and Maritime Law Division of the Judge Advocate General. And because the Dabob testing range on Hood Canal is operated by the Naval Undersea Warfare Center – Keyport, I was directed to a spokesman for Navy Region Northwest.

After getting the runaround again and again, I asked in late September if they could talk to each other and tell me where I should address my questions. They did that and told me that I would have my questions answered by Third Fleet, where the ship is based. I went so far as to put my questions in writing so there would be no confusion. Two weeks later, my questions still were not answered, so I sent out another e-mail.

This is where I need to give credit to Sean Hughes and the other public affairs officers for Navy Region Northwest. They have always been helpful to me, and I think that leaving these questions unresolved were beginning to trouble them as well. Sean told me that he was able to take over the questions from Third Fleet and quickly get answers from local folks running the Dabob range.

I’m guessing that the issue of financial liability for loss of the oysters was creating a reluctance by Navy officials to discuss the situation. I can understand that. At the same time, I’m glad that Sean Hughes and other officials at Navy Region Northwest appreciate the need to be responsive to the local community where they operate.

Federal aquaculture policy talks are tonight

Washington state, Puget Sound and the Kitsap Peninsula are known for their aquaculture. Commercial oyster beds in Hood Canal, geoduck growing areas in Case Inlet and salmon farms off Bainbridge Island are among the many aquaculture facilities that we have.

Officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recognize the tremendous economic value and potential of aquaculture projects throughout the country — including offshore facilities. The potential for feeding large numbers of people is part of the equation.

On the other hand, the potential for overrunning our natural ecosystems is a serious concern.

Now, NOAA is seeking comments about what people think should go into a national aquaculture policy. The agency will hold a public meeting tonight from 6 to 8:30 at Seattle Aquarium to discuss concerns and potential goals and policies. I’m hoping that the people who turn out on both sides of the issue understand that there is a need for balance. (I won’t be able to attend, since I’ll be covering the first meeting of the task force on Kitsap County’s shorelines plan, but I’ll look for reports of the meeting.)

For extensive information on this effort, check out the website for NOAA’s Aquaculture Program.

In 2007, NOAA released a “10-Year Plan for Marine Aquaculture,” which concludes with four goals:

  1. A comprehensive regulatory program for environmentally sustainable marine aquaculture, which includes new permits for operations in federal waters
  2. Development of commercial marine aquaculture and replenishment of wild stocks, which includes research and investment incentives
  3. Public understanding of marine aquaculture, including an outreach plan
  4. Increased collaboration and cooperation with international partners, including a code of conduct for responsible fisheries

Among the issues identified for discussion and consideration:

  • Contaminants in seafood — such as PCBs, mercury, and pesticides. Some of these come from the food given to the animals
  • Use of artificial coloring to tint animal flesh
  • The spread of parasites and contagious diseases from captive animals to wild ones
  • Excreted waste from the captive animals
  • The environmental costs of using large quantities of wild animals to feed captive animals
  • Escape of genetically modified animals into the wild
  • Impacts on threatened and endangered species
  • The accidental trapping of predators in the nets that form aquaculture enclosures
  • Selection of suitable aquaculture sites
  • Climate change and ocean acidification
  • Jurisdictional overlaps with agencies such as Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration and the Army Corps of Engineers
  • Direct and indirect effects on aquaculture products from other countries regarding issues such as quantity, quality, and toxicity, industry practices, costs and economic viability and trade agreements

New York Times writer enjoys Hood Canal shellfish beaches


Someone sent me Bonnie Tsui’s e-mail address, and I was able to contact her to ask for her recipe for seafood paella.

“This is most definitely not my recipe — I am not that skilled,” she said it a note to me. “But I like Ruth Reichl’s Easy Seafood Paella (from her recent Diary of a Foodie show on Andalucian cooking, on PBS). This one is delicious and easy to make at home.”

I’ve not made paella before, but I’m looking forward to it. If anyone beats me to it, please share your thoughts and observations.


Freelance writer Bonnie Tsui wrote a nice travel piece for yesterday’s New York Times about picking oysters at Potlatch State Park on Hood Canal.

Tsui came to visit our region with her mother-in-law. Both live in Northern California.

“After three minutes of digging on a muddy and shell-strewn beach along the shores of the Hood Canal in Washington State, I had gathered enough shellfish for a pretty mean paella,” she wrote.

“I don’t mean to brag — it sure wasn’t through any skill of my own. The Hood Canal is a glitteringly beautiful 60-mile-long fjord and the western waterway of Puget Sound, and it sits about an hour and a half outside Seattle.”

Tsui quickly identified one of the great things about Hood Canal: Oysters set naturally in portions of the canal — unlike many other places, including San Francisco Bay and much of Puget Sound.

How many of the oysters that she picked were from a natural set is probably not important. Potlatch State Park, which she visited, has been planted with oyster seed, according to the Department of Natural Resources. For details about when and where to harvest shellfish and which beaches have been enhanced, download state shellfish rules (PDF 2 mb).

Oh, by the way, I was hoping Tsui would share her recipe for seafood paella (a rice dish) with us, but I couldn’t locate her e-mail address to ask her.

Officials will stick with native oysters in Chesapeake Bay

Non-native oysters will not be introduced to Chesapeake Bay, officials announced this week.

The idea of bringing in one or more species of oysters that come from Asian stocks could have created commercial opportunities while filtering massive amounts of pollution, according to proponents.

But uncertainty about what the oysters would ultimately do to the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem resulted in the no-go decision by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and secretaries of natural resources for Maryland and Virginia, according to a news release from the Corps.

Of course we can’t go back to the 1920s in Puget Sound or Hood Canal, but what would have happened if authorities decided back then not to introduce the Pacific oyster, which originated in Asia?

You can safely argue that the shellfish industry in Washington state would not be what it is today without the big Pacific oysters we see on our beaches. Under the right conditions, these oysters grow in massive quantities.

On the other hand, if we had to rely on only the native Olympic oysters and we noticed a precipitous decline in their numbers, maybe people would have done more to reduce the pollution and other problems that decimated the Olympias throughout Puget Sound.

At this time, restoring the Olympia oysters seems as much of a challenge as restoring native oysters to Chesapeake Bay. But Puget Sound Restoration Fund is working hard to do just that.

For added details, see NOAA’s Web page on the proposed oyster introduction or read stories by Washington Post writer David A. Fahrenthold, Baltimore Sun reporter Timothy Wheeler and Virginia Pilot reporter Scott Harper.