HILO, Hawaii (AP) — It appears at the end of a palm tree-lined drive, not far from piles of hardened black lava: the newest addition to the Northwest’s famed oyster industry.
Half an ocean from Seattle, on a green patch of island below a tropical volcano, a Washington state oyster family built a 20,000-square-foot shellfish hatchery.
Ocean acidification left the Nisbet family no choice.
Carbon dioxide from fossil-fuel emissions had turned seawater in Willapa Bay along Washington’s coast so lethal that slippery young Pacific oysters stopped growing. The same corrosive ocean water got sucked into an Oregon hatchery and routinely killed larvae the family bought as oyster seed.
So the Nisbets became the closest thing the world has seen to ocean-acidification refugees. They took out loans and spent $1 million and moved half their production 3,000 miles away.
“I was afraid for everything we’d built,” Goose Point Oyster Co. founder Dave Nisbet said of the hatchery, which opened last year. “We had to do something.”
How it happened
Oysters started dying by the billions along the Northwest Coast in 2005, and have been struggling ever since. When scientists cautiously linked the deaths to plummeting ocean pH in 2008 and 2009, few outside the West Coast’s $110 million industry believed it.
By the time scientists confirmed it early last year, the region’s several hundred oyster growers had become a global harbinger – the first tangible sign anywhere in the world that ocean acidification already was walloping marine life and hurting people.
Worried oystermen testified before Congress. A few hit the road to speak at science conferences. Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire established a task force of ocean acidification experts, who sought ways to fight this global problem locally.
The eight years of turmoil the Nisbet family endured trying to outrun their corroding tides offered them a unique perch from which to view debate over CO2 emissions.
“I don’t care if you think it’s the fault of humans or not,” Nisbet said. “If you want to keep your head in the sand, that’s up to you. But the rest of us need to get it together because we’re not out of the woods yet on this thing.”
The industry in Willapa Bay, a shallow estuary, and Puget Sound employs about 3,200 people and produces one-quarter of the nation’s oysters.
How it began
The Nisbets bought 10 acres of tidelands near Bay Center in 1975 and built their business over decades, one market at a time.
Sometimes Dave Nisbet’s daughter Kathleen, now 27, came along. She sipped a baby bottle and ate cookies while riding the dredge with her father. The Nisbets eventually pieced together 500 acres of tidelands and hired 70 people.
For a long time, business was good – until, overnight, it suddenly wasn’t.
It’s hard to imagine now how far CO2 was from anyone’s mind when the oysters crashed.
In 2005, when no young oysters survived in Willapa Bay at all, farmers blamed the vagaries of nature. After two more years with essentially no reproduction, panic set in. Then things got worse.
By 2008, oysters were dying at Oregon’s Whiskey Creek Hatchery, which draws water directly from the Pacific Ocean. The next year, it struck a Taylor Shellfish hatchery outside Quilcene, Wash., which gets its water from Hood Canal. Owners initially suspected a bacteria, But shellfish died even when it wasn’t present.
Each spring, the Nisbets put an order in with Whiskey Creek until the mid-2000s, when that option vanished.
“The hatchery had a long waiting list of customers and no seed, and we had a small window of time to get it into the bay,” Dave Nisbet recalled. “They had nothing.”
Whiskey Creek hatchery closed for weeks at a stretch. Production at Taylor Shellfish was off more than 60 percent. The entire industry was on the brink. Oyster growers from Olympia to Grays Harbor worried that in a few years’ time they would not be able to bring shellfish to market.
Dave Nisbet made frantic calls, but could not find another source.
In 2008, Kathleen Nisbet fretted about the prospect of laying off people her family had employed since she’d been in diapers.
And no one, anywhere, could tell them what was wrong.
Then the oyster growers met the oceanographers.