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Members of the Shellfish Growers Climate Coalition stand in front of the Library of Congress.
Climate Action Coalition members on Capitol Hill during 2019 Fly-In. © The Nature Conservancy

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COVID-19 Can’t Deter Shellfish Industry from Advocating for Legislative Action on Climate Change

In a time of compounding crises, the Shellfish Growers Climate Coalition amplifies the climate conversation on Capitol Hill.

During the first week of March, shellfish industry stewards from coast to coast and up and down the supply chain will meet with Congressional representatives to discuss the climate action needed to keep the industry afloat. The effort to bring these issues to Congress is led by the Shellfish Growers Climate Coalition (SGCC), a group of more than 200 shellfish businesses from 23 U.S. states and Canada, in partnership with The Nature Conservancy. This will be the coalition’s third annual Capitol Hill event. 

In a year of converging crises, the shellfish industry has been hit from multiple sides. For years, the impacts of climate change have disrupted not only the businesses that farm our coastal waters but all of those connected to the larger shellfish supply chain—from the hatchery to the half shell. Anywhere there’s shoreline, the signs are evident: sea level rise, ocean acidification, increased frequency and severity of storms. These are all impacts directly related to climate change, and all impacts that put the viability of the broader shellfish industry in jeopardy.

Now, COVID-19 has added a new and unprecedented layer to the shellfish industry story as imports and exports stall, restaurants close or cut their operations, and consumers seek to reduce their spending. And the consequences of these dual crises can’t be undersold. In addition to crippling a critical portion of the U.S. economy, the combined impacts of climate change and COVID-19 threaten to further devastate the livelihoods of countless shellfish farmers, wholesalers, gear suppliers, and restaurateurs.

“While COVID-19 and climate change each pose threats to our livelihoods and our way of life, there is no vaccine to prevent raging storms, acidifying oceans, or increased predation in our warming waters,” said Bill Mook of Maine’s Mook Sea Farms, a founding member of the SGCC. “We’re meeting with our policymakers to put a face to these challenges, give voice to the shellfish industry, and—most critically—ensure that the impacts of climate change and the need for legislative action remain front of mind.”

The nation’s shellfish industry is one of the fastest-growing sectors of agriculture in the country. It’s also an industry largely comprised of family-run operations and small businesses, many of whom have been making their living farming the sea for generations and whose businesses form the backbone of their small-town coastal communities. Most critically, it’s an industry whose success relies entirely on the health of the ocean—and climate change has put the ocean’s health at risk.

That’s where the SGCC and its growing membership comes into play, advocating for actionable climate policy that’ll help change course. While the membership of the SGCC spans the entire country and shellfish supply chain, the common denominator is evident: a profound sense of urgency. 

 “Shellfish farmers aren’t waiting to see the impacts of climate change, we’re already suffering them,” said Mook. “In some parts of the country we’ve been coping with ocean acidification for over a decade. Our growing areas are closed more and more frequently because of poor water quality associated with excessive runoff, and damage to our piers, equipment, and crops is increasing due to more frequent and more intense storms.” 

“The threats to our profitability and livelihoods are increasing. In some coastal areas, businesses have shut down. We’ve changed our operations to cope with these challenges and are doing our best to adapt, but the time we have to reverse course is running out,” he continued.

Climate impacts have already cost Americans billions of dollars in economic damage, with coastal communities and their businesses bearing a sizable portion of the costs. Without urgent climate action, the devastation to coastal communities, the family-run businesses that sustain them, and marine environments that make this industry possible will only continue to rise.

“This has been a harrowing year for these small business owners as the impacts of climate change have only been compounded by the economic uncertainty brought on by the pandemic,” said Sally McGee, Northeast Marine Program Director at The Nature Conservancy and SGCC Project Manager.  

“Our coalition members are determined to take action on climate in light of the challenges they’ve faced over the past 12 months because they know that significant, systemic changes are critical. They’re not just thinking of themselves; they’re thinking about the future generations of shellfish farmers and the environment they'll be working in,” said McGee. “And they’re looking past the short term—this isn’t just about their businesses, it’s also about the ecosystems that sustain them.”

In addition to supporting the shellfish industry through the SGCC, The Nature Conservancy is working with partners in seven states to purchase more than five million surplus farmed oysters and use them in nearby oyster restoration projects—a win-win for these environmentally friendly businesses and for our ocean ecosystems. The initiative, Supporting Oyster Aquaculture and Restoration (SOAR), aims to address the challenges the industry has faced due to restaurant closures and a dramatic decrease in demand for farmed shellfish as a result of COVID-19. 

The virtual Capitol Hill event taking place this week shows that even a crisis like COVID-19 can’t diminish SGCC members’ dedication. By sharing their personal stories of how climate change is already impacting their communities, their businesses, and their bottom lines, the coalition aims to bring about swift climate policy action. The group calls on Congressional leadership to implement durable, bipartisan solutions that will secure a low-carbon future. For more information about the coalition, its membership, or how to join or support, visit nature.org/shellfish4climate

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 76 countries and territories: 37 by direct conservation impact and 39 through partners, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.