Farming oysters in the protected waters of Prince of Wales Island
Greg McMillan Farming oysters in the protected waters of Prince of Wales Island ©: Bethany Goodrich

Climate Change Stories

Featured Shellfish Growers

The Shellfish Growers Climate Coalition formed in 2018 as a way for shellfish growers around the United States to tell the public and policymakers about the need to take action to address climate change now. Shellfish growers are often the linchpin businesses in small, coastal communities, and they are already seeing the impacts of climate change in the form of ocean acidification, sea level rise, and increased number and severity of storms. Meet some of our members and learn their stories. 

Members of the Shellfish Growers Climate Coalition

Taylor Shellfish Farms grows oysters in several locations in Washington state.
GROWING OYSTERS Taylor Shellfish Farms grows oysters in several locations in Washington state. © Taylor Shellfish Farms

Shelton, Washington

Taylor Shellfish Farms is the largest shellfish farming operation in the United States, started by the Taylor family, when they began growing Olympia oysters in Southern Puget Sound in the late 1880’s. Now run by fourth-generation members of the Taylor family, brothers Bill and Paul Taylor, along with brother-in-law Jeff Pearson, Taylor Shellfish has over 14,000 acres of tidelands that produce 16 million pounds of oysters, manila clams, mussels and geoduck a year that are sold all over the United States and overseas.

But the giant of America’s shellfish industry is not immune to the impacts of climate change. Oceans store a significant portion, some say up to a quarter of all carbon emissions over the last 250 years. All that excess carbon dioxide reacts with the ocean’s chemistry to form carbonic acid, which increases the acidity of ocean waters. And this ocean acidification has significant ramifications for shellfish growers like Taylor.

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“Changing ocean chemistry from carbon pollution has impacted our ability to produce oyster seed,” says Bill Taylor. “Our research also suggests it may be impacting growth of our oyster crops, the thickness of mussel shells and strength of their byssal threads which they use to attach to our culture lines on the farm.”

Because of the impacts of ocean acidification, Taylor has had to invest considerable resources into water monitoring and treatment systems at their Washington state hatchery and expand their production at their Hawaii facility to offset production losses in Washington. This geographic diversity has proven vital as an “insurance policy” against climate impacts and some of the other climate related impacts that afflict shellfish farms – harmful algae blooms and vibrio closures. Such is the benefit of being of a certain size, but smaller growers do not have that advantage.

Despite the advantage of their size, Taylor is still concerned about climate impacts as they start to increase in severity. “We anticipate we'll be participating in ongoing research to further understand the impacts of changing ocean chemistry and climate,” says Bill. 

CHARLESTON OYSTER FARM The farm is a vital part of the Gullah Geechee waterfront. © Charleston Oyster Farm

Charleston, SC

Started in 2016 in the Stano River as the first oyster farm in the city of Charleston and run by the Bierce family, Charleston Oyster Farm is the only woman owned oyster farm in South Carolina. Originally started as a way to take stress off of the over-harvested wild oysters, Charleston Oyster Farm farms focuses on bottom cage culture. They are a vital part of the Gullah Geechee waterfront, which has centuries of history as a seafood and fishing area.  

Because they process all their oysters on the water, they use no freshwater in their operations, and can have their oysters to market inside of an hour, using very little fuel or ice to deliver their product.

All that said, climate change has hit the oyster industry hard in the Carolinas. Hurricane Florence not only destroyed a lot of oyster gear, it kept oyster farms closed due to water quality issues. With storm frequency and severity increasing in the oceans off the Carolinas, and rising sea levels and flooding means more bacteria in the water, more closures and loss of harvest. Farmers like the Bierce’s have joined the Shellfish Growers Climate Coalition so that state and federal lawmakers may learn from their experiences and be motivated to enact policies that will slow the progress of climate change and thus preserve their livelihood and the historic coastal community they live in. 

The Davis family manages operations of a business employing up to 10 people.
IN HOOD CANAL, WASHINGTON The Davis family manages operations of a business employing up to 10 people. © Jonathan P. Davis

Hood Canal, WA

Joth Davis fell in love with shellfish aquaculture in the 1980’s, first working on an oyster farm on Fishers Island, New York, and later moving to the west coast and Washington State’s Puget Sound and Hood Canal. In 1990, Joth and his wife Karen started their own oyster farm, Baywater Shellfish Farms on a part time basis. Today, Joth and Karen’s son Caleb manages the day to day operations of a business employing up to 10 people which focuses on farm to table production of Pacific oysters, manila clams, and geoduck which are imported to the Asian marketplace.

“Shellfish aquaculture offers sustainably produced, high protein and healthful food for the public,” says Joth. “For myself, the interface between the natural environment and the farm is very gratifying. I use research to help inform the best and most sustainable approaches to development. It is extremely important for the benefit of the public.”

But climate change is threatening the future of oyster farming across the country, and especially in the Pacific Northwest that Bayview calls home. Ocean acidification has changed the ocean’s chemistry, and other changes in the environment have led to changes in natural plankton blooms that affect shellfish growth, and expanded natural bacterial pathogens, causing increased vibrio outbreaks which affect shellfish quality.

Joth’s concern for the future of shellfish aquaculture drove him to become one of the founding members of the Shellfish Growers Climate Coalition “I have a very firm belief that together as a group of growers, wholesalers and restaurants, we can have an important voice in enacting policy that directly impacts an industry based in sustainable production of seafood served to the American public,” he says.

OYSTERS IN MOBILE BAY Helping DePe's Oysters in Alabama is Angelo DePaola's invention of the Shellevator. © Andy DePaola

Coden, AL

Angelo DePaola wasn’t always an oysterman. For about 37 years before he founded his farm, DePaola was a researcher on shellfish safety, risk assessment and seafood policy. About a year and a half ago, he retired from his position as the Lead Seafood Microbiologist at the FDA to start DePe’s Oysters in Coden, Alabama.

DePaola had been growing oysters for personal consumption from baskets suspended from a private pier at his home on Mobile Bay. What started out as something he did for himself became a business selling oysters to others. And then, he invented the Shellevator.

The Shellevator is a pneumatically automated oyster growing apparatus that raises containerized oysters from the sea floor and brings them above the sea surface. In addition to automating the process of raising bottom cages, it allows cages to be moved from one location to another before harvest. It was more than just a clever way to harvest oysters. DePaola was in part thinking about climate change.

“Mobile Alabama produced over a billion oysters in the previous century,” says DePoala, “but the area grew virtually none since the 1990s due to over exploitation, predators and natural disasters. My farm operation is bringing oysters back to the Bay and I've recruited dozens of new farmers to the Bay.”

But climate change is threatening the burgeoning shellfish industry in Alabama, and not just from the increased frequency and severity of hurricanes, like Michael, which devastated the Gulf Coast in October 2018. “Shellfish are equivalent to the canary in the coal mine,” says DePaola, “and the canary is dying on all coasts largely due to climate change and other human activities. I've invented the Shellevator to mobilize my operation to relocate oyster crop away from hazards to oyster and human health. I've already invested over $20K on patents and prototypes. I'm betting the rest of my life on the Shellevator.”

LONG ISLAND SOUND Protected waters of Fishers Island Sound. are critical to Sarah and Steve Malinowski’s success as the owners and operators of Fishers Island Oyster Farm. © Julie Qiu Photography

Fishers Island, NY

Fishers Island sits at the eastern end of Long Island Sound, off the Connecticut coast. Fishers Island Oyster Farm is located on the north and south sides of the island, in a large brackish pond and in the protected waters of Fishers Island Sound. These locations haves been critical to Sarah and Steve Malinowski’s success as the owners and operators of Fishers Island Oyster Farm.  

“We began as a clam farm in 1980 while Steve was in grad school,” says Sarah Mailnowski. “We quickly morphed into an oyster growout business in the late 1980’s and now we are primarily a seed provider with a growout operation.”

The Malinowskis decided to settle on Fishers Island because of its natural beauty, and when they began their farm, it very quickly became a family business. “All six of our children have worked the farm at one time or another as they were growing up,” says Sarah. But the future of the farm is in jeopardy. Increased rainfall events, and increased frequency and severity of storms and sea level rise all pose a threat to their business.

“Our major concern is that rising sea level will cause our brackish water pond to have a higher salinity and will no longer provide protection from disease,” says Sarah. “There would be no way to mitigate this impact. Without this salt pond we lose two-thirds of our revenue. There’s no coming back from that. In anticipation of climate impacts and their effect on our business, we have had to invest in an alternate site and start a satellite hatchery and build out nursery systems. This is just the beginning of the investments we’ll have to make in our hatcheries to cope with climate change.”

LOBSTER PLACE The company is a wholesaler, retailer and hospitality operation, employing over 250 people in its locations in Manhattan and the Bronx. © Max Flatow Photography

New York, NY

In 1974, the MacGregor family began selling live Maine lobsters to NYC restaurants and locals out of a tiny upper west side store front. In 1995, the business became an original tenant of the iconic Chelsea Market, expanding its product line to include all seafood, establishing a proper retail store and a sushi bar. Today, the Lobster Place is a fully fledged wholesaler, retailer and hospitality operation, employing over 250 people in its locations in Manhattan and the Bronx.

Now being operated by its second generation, the Lobster Place is the only seafood wholesaler in New York that also operates a retail location and a restaurant – Cull & Pistol. Its two raw bar operations alone serve between 20,000 to 30,000 oysters a week.

The decision by Lobster Place to be part of the Shellfish Growers Climate Coalition was based on its understanding that while they might not have to directly mitigate impacts to their business from climate change, what affects their vendors affects them.

“So much of our business is dependent on healthy oceans and planet. It's important we act now to deal with this problem and insure the long-term viability of both our business and planet,” says Davis Heron, Lobster Place’s Director of its Retail & Restaurant Division. “We believe we need to act now to mitigate the worst effects of climate change for our business and on behalf of our vendors. SGCC provided a natural way for us to get involved.”

Seth and Dorothy Garfield are faced with adapting their business to a changing climate
FARM FRESH OYSTERS Seth and Dorothy Garfield are faced with adapting their business to a changing climate © Kassia Garfield

Cuttyhunk Island, MA

Cuttyhunk Island sits at the end of a short chain of islands that streams out of Woods Hole, Massachusetts and divides Buzzard’s Bay from Vineyard Sound. Salt water, sailing and seafood are stitched into the fabric of life along this part of coastal New England, and for the last 37 years, Cuttyhunk Shellfish Farms has been a central part of life on this tiny island.

Cuttyhunk Shellfish Farms sits on a 30 acre salt water pond that has daily tidal exchange, and the 400,000 oysters that inhabit that pond not only support a thriving ecosystem of bait fish, and game fish (striped bass and bluefish), but keep the pond pristine and healthy. But most visitors know Seth and Dorothy Garfield’s shellfish business best for its “floating raw bar” which criss-crosses the harbor 12 weeks a year selling oysters, clams and stuffed quahogs to visiting yachtsmen and yacht club groups. “Visitors come to Cuttyhunk because of our oysters and the fact that they are farm fresh each night,” says Seth Garfield.

Cuttyhunk Shellfish Farms is actually at the epicenter of not just the Island’s ecosystem, but its economy. It is the largest employer on the island, and attracts yachting tourists who not only buy from their floating raw bar, but stay on the moorings at the marina, and visit other local businesses onshore. Generations of families who come to Cuttyhunk Island for the summer have sent their kids to help work the farm and learn about what it means to live on, and make one’s living from, the water. The Garfields hope that one day one of their three kids, all of whom grew up here, will take over the business.

Small business owners always have a lot riding on them, and Cuttyhunk Shellfish Farms is no different. But on top of all the usual issues, the Garfields are concerned about climate change, and that’s why they’ve joined the Shellfish Growers Climate Coalition (SGCC). “Aquaculture is an important economic engine for the country and also necessary to fill the increasing demand for protein and seafood,” says Seth. “We are already having to redesign our mooring systems to handle the higher tides and more extreme winds. Climate change is real we need to be a unified voice to create change and tell our story to the decision makers.”

Shellfish Growers Climate Coalition Member businesses recognize that climate change poses a threat to businesses and food production for a growing human population.