Oyster farmers unite to fight global warming
Does the future of food include oysters? Many oyster growers are doing everything they can now to ensure that it does. There’s good reason to keep this mollusk around. Not only are oysters delicious, but each one can filter 50 gallons of seawater daily. “Oysters are the most sustainable food on earth,” says Andy DePaola, an oysterman in Mobile Alabama. “There’s no feed or chemicals of any sort.”
The climate-friendly oyster industry is among the most adversely affected by rising greenhouse gas levels. Right now it’s trying to cope with ocean acidification, more frequent and intense storms, and harmful algae blooms, not to mention increasing temperatures. A new report published in Science found oceans heating up at rates 40 percent faster than a United Nations panel estimated five years ago. “As these environmental changes continue to worsen,” says Bill Mook, who has been harvesting oysters in Maine for 30 years, “our livelihoods are increasingly threatened.”
broad support for taking action
Mook is among the oyster growers supportive of the industry’s recent move to do something about the problem. Last April, seven industry leaders and the Nature Conservancy banded together to form the Shellfish Growers Climate Coalition (SGCC). The group aims to shine a light on the many ways climate change is affecting food production in the United States by drawing on the stories of shellfish growers.
“We believe that by telling our stories we can convince citizens and policy makers at all levels of government that climate change is starting to bite and is a problem requiring urgent attention,” says Sally McGee, the Coalition head at the Nature Conservancy. The group already has broad-based support within the industry. In less than a year it has grown to include nearly 70 major players in the shellfish industry, from hatcheries to growers, wholesalers to retailers, and restaurateurs.
The group has also been endorsed by industry groups across the political divide, including the 400-member East Coast Shellfish Growers Association (ECSGA), which hasn’t taken a position on climate change until now. In its December 2018 newsletter, the ECSGA ran a front-page article calling on members to join the Coalition, adding “acting to address climate change is imperative to secure the viability of our businesses, our communities and the natural resources they depend on.”
Thus far the Coalition has publicly supported incentives for clean energy, including offshore wind. It also came out in favor of carbon tax legislation introduced by Carlos Curbelo, a South Florida Republican member of Congress. McGee notes that support for a Republican in South Florida who understands climate science is a key step to making large-scale change in addressing global warming.
The group is also taking steps to more closely monitor the effects of a warmer world. Andy DePaola, a founding member, is pushing for an adverse events registry. “I want to track the harm brought onto the industry so that we have science-based evidence against the naysayers.” He’s also recruiting new growers who are not generational oyster farmers, but scientists with doctoral degrees and research connections who can help report on weather and ocean conditions. Joth Davis, another founding member in Washington’s Willapa Bay, is using pH meters, water quality testing, and his position as an affiliate faculty member at the University of Washington to supply research data. “I’d like this group to put a spotlight on our unique relationship with water and climate, and on our waning capacity to grow shellfish.”
Though still in its infancy, the Coalition’s reach is already crossing international boundaries. Representatives from the Nature Conservancy presented at the COP24 UN Climate Summit in December 2018 on behalf of the SGCC. A number of growers and industry associations in Canada and Scotland “are really interested in what we’re doing,” says McGee. She, and others, hope the Coalition inspires shellfish growers around the world to step up to their governments and demand action on climate change.
For now, members of the SGCC are floating new weather-resistant approaches to farming shellfish, like the dock-based technique developed by Andy DaPaola. They’re also working with restaurants and retail outlets to reach consumers. “Otherwise it’s just a bunch of environmentalists preaching to the choir,” says Joth Davis.
The Coalition may be young but its rapid growth has already demonstrated a resounding need for an organization like it. One that brings people together around a common cause in hopes of brightening the future. As Davis says, “this shellfish world self-selects for eternal optimists.”
Takeaway: Visit the Nature Conservancy to join, support, or learn more.