Climate Change Stories

Heard on the Half Shell

Stories of climate change from Shellfish Growers Climate Coalition members, friends and supporters.

Young oysters grow on recycled shell at Jackson Estuarine Laboratory in Durham, New Hampshire.
Oyster Spat Young oysters grow on recycled shell at Jackson Estuarine Laboratory in Durham, New Hampshire. © Jennifer Emerling
Shellfish Growers Share Their Voice For Earth Day 2021, Shellfish Growers Climate Coalition members are speaking up to help consumers, colleagues, and Members of Congress understand what’s at stake if we don’t act now: the sustainability of our businesses, the viability of the shellfish industry, and the future of our planet.
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Love shellfish? Live on the coast? Care about climate? Share your story.

All along our U.S. coastlines, climate change is impacting lives, homes and bottom lines.  Members of the Shellfish Growers Climate Coalition have been farming coastal waters for generations, sustaining businesses that form the backbone of their coastal communities.

Now, we’re asking coalition members and supporters—as well as coastal residents and shellfish lovers everywhere—to speak up for climate action by sharing personal stories and lived experiences. Together, we can inspire action by letting policymakers know how climate impacts touch all of us. Email us a recording via the voice recorder app on your iPhone or Android device or share your written story, sending all submissions to sgcc@tnc.org.

A selection of our latest audio stories is below; visit our SoundCloud playlist for the full archive.

Chiles Restaurant Group
Ed Chiles Owner, Chiles Group. © Chiles Group

FEATURED STORY

Ed Chiles | Chiles Group - Anna Maria, FL

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Why does this matter to somebody in Ohio? The facts are this: 90 plus percent of the seafood that we eat in these United States of America is imported, and 50 percent of that is aquaculture.

And the U.S. has got to be in that game or we've got a major food security issue. It won't be about oil, or it won't be about bullets, it'll be about center of the plate protein.

So I think that's a big reason that everybody has a stake. Everyone has to now do their part because we may be too late. But God help us if we don't fight like hell to turn the clock back. And I believe we can turn the clock back, but it takes everyone.

It takes the person that's inland, 40 miles from the coast to determine what they're going to put on their lawn, and are they going to recycle? And what's going on in terms of the little creeks and the rivers that are in their area? Because that all contributes. Are they going to grow a garden? And where do they get their food? And are they looking at sustainable issues for seafood?

Everybody needs to be putting their shoulder to the wheel if we're going to be able to turn this back and I think we can do that and our best days can be ahead. But they can't be ahead if we're going to continue on the path that we have been on for the last 20 years. If it's all about deregulation, we're not going to get there. If it's all about jobs at any cost, we're not going to get there.

But we, as the bivalve aquaculture community, are a big part of the solution. And guess what? We're the best bang for the buck that there is with a biological solution that brands an area, that provides top-quality, sustainable seafood, that is super healthy, that cleans up water, and promotes the benthic environment. If you want more seagrass, if you want to clean up water, plant bivalves.

And I would also say that every single farmer and person that lives on the east side of the Continental Divide greatly affects what happens in the Gulf of Mexico. So everything we do to change farming practices and to sequester carbon is going to improve what's coming down the Mississippi into the Gulf of Mexico.  You want to be able to travel from Indiana and Chicago and everywhere else where they come to Florida, and you want Florida to be healthy or Charleston to be healthy or California to be healthy when you go there.

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More Audio Stories

In a Half Shell blog
Julie Qiu Founder, In a Half Shell. © Julie Qiu/In A Half Shell

Julie Qiu

In a Half Shell - New York, NY

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I'm a self-described oyster sommelier, I'm a huge oyster nerd, and I love telling stories about the oyster industry and oyster culture around the world. My name is Julie Qiu and I'm the founder of In a Half Shell, which is a website dedicated to oyster appreciation.

I got into oysters when I started exploring a lot of different oyster bars. I joined the New York Oyster Lovers meetup group. I read a bunch of books about oysters and started asking a lot of annoying questions to chefs and distributors. And ultimately they led me to oyster farms. And I think that's what I really, really fell in love with the oyster world.

Being on an oyster farm is totally surreal because it's one of the most beautiful places on earth. And when you're having an oyster right out of the water, that is like a super magical moment in time. What I love about that is being able to appreciate a food right from where it's grown and being with amazing people who can tell you all about it.

We're really, really fortunate to have that opportunity to try so many oysters from all different parts of the coastline. And I guess that also ties into--there are just more oyster growers in general, I think that we haven't had before. Like 10 years ago, there were only a handful that I could find on the East Coast and even fewer, I think, on the West Coast. But today, there are so many entrepreneurs who are getting into the business and so many of them who maybe have done it for a while but have never really branded themselves, are now showing up on social media. So you can find these like great new growers or great existing growers that just really have a voice and a story for them to bring direct to the consumer.

And I guess if you're looking for a perspective on how the climate has impacted this product category, it's interesting because we as the consumer really see an abundance of oysters and the quality of oysters go up. But I know that's actually a very fragile thing and it's very delicate. And if you have a storm that rolls in, it wipes out an entire farm--that's it. And that is actually picking up in frequency, and in a larger span of time during the year. So it's been an interesting juxtaposition between this oyster culture that is really rising and developing in the U.S. versus the uncertainty and volatility of that oyster industry in the same space.

And relating back to climate change, I think that it does depend on where the grower is and that dictates what kind of immediate challenges that they're facing on a day-to-day.

For example, my friends who grow oysters in the Gulf or in the South Atlantic, they are bracing for storms every single year. And it's really heartbreaking to see sometimes entire areas get wiped out and they cannot do anything about it, which is really, really unfortunate. And then the growers who are more in the northeast, the waters are changing, they experience potentially invasive predators coming into an area that they didn't have to worry about years before.

I guess you can only plan for the worst every single time and hope for the best.

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Chebeague Island Oysters
Bob Earnest Owner, Chebeague Island Oyster Co. © Chebeague Island Oyster Co.

Bob Earnest

Chebeague Island Oyster Co. - Portland, ME

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My name is Bob Earnest and I live on Chebeague Island and Casco Bay, off the coast of Maine. We actually started our farm as a result of climate change.

A few of us were talking about small scale economic development for our coastal community when we realized that the lobstering industry--which is the biggest industry on our island--was threatened in the future because of climate change. And two of us decided to start an oyster farm.

The goal was to get young people, young families on the island or who might move to the island interested in ways to make a living or part of a living off the bay in ways other than or in addition to lobstering. So, we bought 60,000 baby oysters and put them in the water and thought, at the very least if nobody becomes interested, we'll have a lot of oysters and have a couple of parties.

In year or two, a young lobstering family--he's a lobsterman, she's a marine biologist--approached us to learn more about oyster farming. And by the end of the evening and a few beers, we had decided to turn our demonstration project into a company. In year three, another young family on the island got involved and in year four, a couple more families got involved.

We now have three oyster farms based on Chebeague Island, and we've grown our company. We've now have restaurants in Portland that we sell to and we work with a few people who take oysters across the country on discrete orders.

But it was the climate change that got us started in terms of its negative impact on the lobstering community. And it was climate change that now threatens our farm on a regular basis.

It's hard work, but we think it's worth it and we're really happy to be part of The Nature Conservancy's coalition with shellfish growers around the country as we try to come up with strategies to help mitigate and prevent further climate change in the years ahead.

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Shina Wysocki
Shina Wysocki Farm Director, Chelsea Farms © Chelsea Farms

Shina Wysocki

Chelsea Farms - Olympia, WA

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People can forget that food comes from the earth and not the grocery store, so—[laughter]—there's a lot of steps between the earth that the food is grown on and the grocery store.

My name is Shina Wysocki and I'm the farm director at Chelsea Farms, which is my family's shellfish farm in Olympia, Washington.

My parents started it when I was about 10 or 11, and before that they worked for shellfish farms so they would have to take us out on the beach with them when they dug clams or did different experiments. I went away to culinary school because food is my first passion and kind of started traveling and doing different things with my husband and I moved back to town. My mom needed help and I love it so much.

What's happening out in the bay changes all the time. It's a constant moving target of what algae is blooming, certain species of jellyfish or starfish. The thing we know for sure is that it's going to change out in the bay, and some of that change feels like familiar change. And some of it feels like different, larger change. It always takes a bit for it to sink in and for you to really realize that it's different than it was.

Humans are changing the earth and the earth is changing the earth, there are two colliding things that are happening at once. But we've seen acidification change shellfish farming in the hatcheries where the oyster seed is not happening, and we've watched the hatcheries adapt to some extent to the changing sea water because they are in a controlled environment.

But what we don't know is how much it's changing out in the wild and how that is affecting native populations. We want to see the other creatures, animals, everything happening in nature—that's a sign of a healthy bay. So when you're not sure that native things are reproducing like they should or they historically did, it makes you worry about the balance of the bay and that ecosystem that is so fragile and so important to all of us.

We all want the same thing. We want the bay to be clean so that we can farm shellfish in it, and keep the salmon alive, and keep the orcas alive. And our goals are all the same. Just if we don't talk about how we get there, the roads get divided.

As far as climate impact goes, I think that if we're not paying attention to the ecosystem in the forefront of our minds, it is so delicate that that will be probably the first straw to break.

I'm hopeful overall for our society that we might be more engaged in our lives, that we might think more about what's on our plate, and maybe spending more time outside. I think getting people outside, appreciating nature makes them want to save it. So I actually think there's a lot of silver linings to this cloudy day, and I'm hopeful that we don't lose sight of them.

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Grayson Bay Oyster Co.
Brandon Smith Owner, Grayson Bay Oyster Co. © Grayson Bay Oyster Co.

Brandon Smith

Grayson Bay Oyster Co. - Pensacola, FL

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Baylen:

Hi, I'm Baylen.

Grayson:

Hi, I'm Grayson.

Brandon:

And we named our oyster farm after you guys. I'm Brandon, founder and farmer of Grayson Bay Oyster Company, located along the Emerald Coast in Pensacola, Florida.

Grayson:

Why did you want to start an oyster farm?

Brandon:

Well Grayson, I wanted to do something that I felt passionate about: the environment, working on the water, food, and spending time with you by starting and growing a family business together. I'm a biologist by education with a career focusing on water quality and aquatic diversity. I've been a water person my entire life.

Baylen:

How has climate change impacted our lives?

Brandon:

Well, Baylen climate change has impacted our lives, especially over the last couple of years. Both Mommy and I have worked in an industry that requires both of us to go on storm duty when impacted by hurricanes. Just like in 2018, Hurricane Michael landed near Panama City and I was away for two weeks, and mommy worked 16 hour days. And again in 2020, where we took a direct hit from Hurricane Sally, which moved at a crawl and dumped 24  inches of rain.

Brandon:

Remember we watched on the farm camera knowing it was going to be bad for us. After the storm passed, we received a call about oyster gear seven miles from the farm. Since the hurricane, we've recovered one hundred and forty lost bags. Some of those oysters survived, many did not. If it had not been for friends and other farmers, we would have lost ninety five percent of our oysters. In reality, we lost between 65 and 70 percent of our oysters.

Brandon:

The frequency of the storms last year was nothing like we've ever really seen before. Even when we did not end up being directly impacted by a hurricane or tropical storm, there were constantly so many storms developing and potentially headed our way that we had to be on constant storm preparation mode.

To say that climate change has impacted our family and our farm, I would say yes.

Baylen and Grayson:

What do you hope for the future?

Brandon:

Good question, guys. My hope for the future as you boys grow bigger can really learn to love the environment, the water growing a sustainable food crop, and being proud of what your mommy and I took a chance on.

I'm also encouraged about the big push and money influx into oyster reef restoration and living shorelines. We must do a better job with sustainable food from land and sea and appreciate that we are part of the cycle. We have to do better for you guys and for generations after. It starts with us.

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Lambert Shellfish
Alex Lambert Owner, Lambert Shellfish © Lambert Shellfish

Alex Lambert

Lambert Shellfish - Machipongo, VA

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My name is Alex Lambert. I'm the co-founder farmer of Lambert Shellfish here on the eastern shore of Virginia.

About two and a half years ago, I left my job at PricewaterhouseCoopers and my life in New York City to come down here to pursue my dream of starting our own oyster farm. Since then, many people have often asked me how I got into this in the first place.

Back in 2013, my family purchased this amazing piece of property. At the time, I didn't know anything about aquaculture, but I'd often watch the watermen here in Hunger's Creek. I didn't know what they were doing--whether they were crabbers, clammers, oyster farmers, or what the difference was--but I was interested. By 2016, I decided to finally give it a shot. I bought some seed bags and cages and deployed them under our dock. I was hooked.

Over the past two and a half years, I have noticed several climate change effects here, around our property. For one, there are several areas around our shoreline that you could see are starting to erode due to rising sea levels. We've also seen plenty of our loblolly pines die off at a significantly higher rate than you'd expect, apparently due to saltwater saturating their root system.

I've also talked to several local people who are familiar with our property, who've told me about and shown me pictures of islands that no longer exist due to rising sea levels and serious storm events. That sort of thing is enough to scare me and make me wonder what could potentially happen to our property here one day.

Despite all of this, I am hopeful for the future. Besides oyster farming, there are two areas in particular that I'm excited about: living shorelines and sea kelp farms.

Last year we started to work with some folks at The Nature Conservancy deploying biodegradable living shoreline materials. Sea kelp farming is another really exciting area in our aquaculture industry that addresses the main cause of climate change, which is excess carbon in our atmosphere. Apparently, scientists say that a healthy level of carbon in our atmosphere is around 350 parts per million and we're approaching, if not exceeding, 400 parts per million.

For me, that means we need to either significantly cut carbon emissions--which doesn't seem likely--or we need to figure out how to sequester a lot of carbon out of our atmosphere. Sea kelp farming does just that, so I'm excited to learn more and hopefully one day pursue our own sea kelp farm.

In terms of memories I'd like to make in the future that depend upon us acting now, I think it revolves around the idea of being able to continue to live, work, and share this amazing piece of property.

For me, that means to continue to build out our living shoreline and support initiatives like the Shellfish Growers Climate Coalition, kelp farms, and others that are centered around educating the public and leading towards a cleaner, greener future.

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Seamore's
Rob Eggleston Chef, Seamore's. © Seamore's

Rob Eggleston & Vinny Milburn

Seamore's & Greenpoint Fish - New York, NY

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Vinny

We've been around since the 1880s and the industry has obviously changed quite a lot since then. But just like everything with climate change, things have become exacerbated in the last 20, 25 years. Hearing stories of the old trawlers that were just offshore that could come in with millions of pounds of fish and they just weren't there anymore, it started to get me thinking about, well, this company has been around for five generations—is it even possible for this to go another five generations? Is there going to be fish and seafood to sell?

Vinny

My name is Vinny Milburn. I'm the owner and seafood purchaser for Greenpoint Fish and Lobster Company. We are a wholesale, retail, and restaurant located in Brooklyn, New York.

Rob

Hi, my name is Rob Eggleston. I am the executive chef of Seamore's Restaurant Group in New York City. We are a sustainable seafood restaurant.

Rob

I grew up in coastal Virginia and through my childhood I would go fishing with my dad and even more so, I started to develop relationships with oyster farmers in the Chesapeake Bay area because I—like so many other Southerners—love oysters and there's so many farms down in the Rappahannock. So, that is what kind of inspired me, personally knowing oyster farmers, to get in the seafood industry and the restaurant industry.

Vinny

And I would say that it's a very unique relationship between Greenpoint Fish and Seamore's in that we do sell to a couple hundred different unique restaurants and we're focused exclusively on providing only sustainable seafood options. So, my restaurant will only sell green or yellow rated species or seafood items. And the only other place in the city is Seamore's.

Rob

Being the executive chef, I am dedicated to purchasing only sustainable seafood. That word "sustainable" has grown over the years and can mean a plethora of things, but specifically, we're dedicated to buying species whose stocks are only stable or growing and that's something that I believe in.

Vinny

When I decided to jump full into seafood, it was something that sustainability had to be top priority because I don't see how the industry can survive without it. If we're doing what we're doing now and nothing else, we won't have the same seafood that we enjoy now. We certainly don't have the same seafood that we were enjoying 25, 30 years ago.

Rob

The availability of certain seafood has changed. Even over the past three years, I have noticed a difference in the length of time that certain seafood is harvested and what is coming in and what is available. And specifically, in shellfish and oysters, I've noticed kind of a change in the effects of acidification on oysters. And there are certain oysters that are becoming more brittle than they were in years past, and it's moving up the coastal line.

Vinny

It's becoming accelerated. Incremental changes that used to happen over hundreds of years are now happening in just a handful of years.

Vinny

It's only getting worse every year that I can tell. And these climate events now that would normally be rare or infrequent are becoming more extreme and more frequent—and it really disrupts almost everything. Climate change is something that is on every single person's mind in the seafood industry, whether they actively acknowledge it or not.

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Headshot - Sally McGee, Project Manager, Shellfish Growers Climate Coalition
Sally McGee Shellfish Growers Climate Coalition project manager. © Anna Sawin Photography

Sally McGee

Shellfish Growers Climate Coalition Project Manager - Mystic, CT

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My name's Sally McGee, I live in Mystic, Connecticut. I work for the Nature Conservancy and I manage the Shellfish Growers Climate Coalition, which is one of the best jobs I've ever had.

I worked in Wild Harvest Fisheries for a long time. I was a member of the New England Fishery Management Council, which, in New England, that's the group that's in charge of species like cod and haddock and flounders and fishing out to 200 miles offshore.

When I was done with my stint on the council, I would spend a lot of time on the Mystic River, where I live and go swimming with my family—right next to this kind of mysterious building that I didn't really know what happened there. But I knew there was something related to shellfish so I started talking to the people who worked there and one really nice guy who would answer all of my questions about growing shellfish.

And eventually, I think when he got a little tired of my questions, he said, "Is this is something that you would be interested in doing?" I decided that that was something that I wanted to do. So I did for about six years, and I learned more about the Mystic River in those few years of oyster farming than I ever knew before.

One of the benefits of growing shellfish for a few years is that I got to know a lot of shellfish farmers in the process. And at shellfish growers meeting up in Maine, I met Bill Mook. Bill had this idea that shellfish farmers should do something about climate change. They were seeing impacts, all sorts of different kinds of impacts on their businesses.

They were looking for a partner. So, I worked for The Nature Conservancy in addition to having my shellfish farm, and he said, how about The Nature Conservancy partners with us? And we've been at it ever since.

The thing that keeps me optimistic is these shellfish farmers that I work with. [Crying] It's okay. So, the thing keeps me optimistic, even though I don't sound optimistic right now. [Crying] You know, our goal in the first year was to get 40 and by the end of the first year we had 100, and now we have 150 and more keep joining.

You know, they see impacts all the time. It's not just a one time thing. It's you know, it's changes in the water. It's changes in the water temperature. They're constantly having to adjust.

And even through all this, they are willing to come with us to Washington, D.C. They're willing to have people come to their farms and tell them again and again and again how you grow a shellfish. So we've got all these business owners that care and that are sharing their experiences and that then can turn around and tell their customers about it, too. So, that makes me hopeful.

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Owner of Hog Island - CA
Terry Sawyer Founding Partner and Vice President, Hog Island © Hog Island

Terry Sawyer

Hog Island - San Francisco, CA

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I'm Terry Sawyer. I have been growing shellfish for close to 35 years. I'm a co-founder of Hog Island Oyster Company, and my partner John Finger and I have really grown something that's now 280 employees, five restaurants. We have a farm here in Tomales Bay in Northern California, we have hatchery operations in Humboldt County, and then we've got what we call leases that we're developing out of Tomales Bay.

I grew up on the east coast of Florida, on the Indian River, and my parents would always go to somebody's lease on the Indian River where there was a wild harvest of oysters. And quite frankly, they scared me to death. From my perspective, looking at an oyster that was fairly large, I just saw this mass of this grey flesh. And I just said, I can't, palate-wise, texture, or et cetera. I was just like, no. Fast forward to when I was, oh, about 19, 20 years old, I was in college in Santa Cruz. I was in the marine biology program at the University of California there, and I had the distinction of joining a party of marine biologists, what we call starving marine biologists. And I tried my first oyster, and there was no looking back on it. It was absolutely delightful. I loved it. I couldn't get enough.

We're all connected. We're connected to our food and we're often put in a place, being in the aquaculture field, of having to be an interpreter for terrestrial species on what is actually going on in that aquatic marine environment. We've become increasingly isolated from our food, and I think the pathway is through people's palates, through their stomachs.

What have I seen change? Well, the success rate of actually getting oysters and getting them to a viable place. Getting them to the plate has been much more challenging. I might be looking at a season where I'm seeing a hundred percent mortality in a seed group that I planted, or 20%, one year, 80% another year. We're seeing increased frequencies of these events happening.

So what do we do? We have to take the glacial speed in policymaking and try to come to some level of parity with the changes that need to happen. Now that's a big lift. And I think what it's going to take is not only visionaries on the policy side, it's going to take courage. So I think that it's going to really take those of us that are actually seeing the changes, the early warning systems that we have at our fingertips, in the water, and telling a story and then our interpretation has to get out there and get to people. We got to get people actually that are making decisions out on the water, in the water, under the water. And whether we do that physically, or if we do that with drones, cameras, monitoring data, all of this really has to be done sooner than later.

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Photo of SGCC member Bill Dewey/Taylor Shellfish
Bill Dewey Director of Public Affairs, Taylor Shellfish. © Taylor Shellfish

Bill Dewey

Taylor Shellfish - Shelton, WA

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I'm Bill Dewey, director of public affairs for Taylor Shellfish Farms in Washington state. I got into the shellfish industry after getting a degree in shellfish biology from the University of Washington. My college advisor, mentor, and still good friend today, Ken Chew, introduced me to Dick Steele, who owned Rock Point Oyster Company. And that was the beginning of 39 years and counting for me in the shellfish industry.

As director of public affairs. I don't get to grow shellfish, which is really my passion. I resolved that 20 years ago by starting my own shellfish farm as a hobby. Much to my family's dismay, that is now more than a hobby and growing Manila clams and gooey duck consumes most of my free time and some of theirs.

With the population exploding around the shores of Puget Sound, it has been increasingly challenging to keep the waters clean enough to grow healthy shellfish that are safe to eat. Until a decade ago, much of my focus was on non-point pollution impacting our beds from failing septic systems, poorly managed agricultural runoff and stormwater runoff, things like that. Today, much of my attention is also on carbon pollution and how it is changing the chemistry, temperature and biology of the ocean, as well as storms that impact our farms and worker safety.

Ten years ago, the oyster larvae in our hatchery in Dabob Bay were dying and we couldn't figure out why. It was happening to good friends of ours at the same time with a hatchery on the Oregon coast.

Well, it took a few years and a lot of collaborative research to come to understand that it was changing ocean chemistry as a result of carbon dioxide emissions being absorbed by the ocean that was killing our baby oysters. And it turns out we were likely the first businesses to be impacted by ocean acidification and know it. And now our focus has turned to addressing the source of the problem.

Unlike in the hatchery, we can't easily manipulate the chemistry of the ocean on our farms. And if future generations are going to continue farming shellfish, we need to address carbon pollution.

What gives me hope is that the Shellfish Growers Climate Coalition in just a couple of years now has over 150 members that share that same concern. Hopefully, our stories of how carbon pollution and climate change is impacting shellfish farms around the country will move policymakers to act.

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Steve and Sarah Malinowski, owners of Fishers Island Oyster Farm.
Sarah and Steve Malinowski Owners, Fishers Island Oyster Farm. © Fishers Island Oyster Farm

Steve and Sarah Malinowski

Fishers Island Oyster Farm - Fishers Island, NY

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Sarah

Hi, I'm Sarah Malinowski.

Steve

And I'm Steve Malinowski, and we own Fishers Island Oyster Farm in New York.

Sarah

We took a moment to sit down with our grandchildren to talk about the impacts of climate change on the shellfish industry. And here's how it went.

Grandkid

Grandpa, why did you decide to be an oyster farmer?

Steve

Well, I enjoyed working outside a lot more than I enjoyed working in an office. So then I went to graduate school. And when I was in graduate school, I studied clams and, at the time, decided that it would be a good idea to try and start a clam farm. And then after about seven years, we decided to switch from clams to oysters.

Grandkid

How did you learn to be an oyster farmer?

Steve

We learned a whole lot from our mentor, Carey Matthiessen, and we borrowed some ideas from the few other people that were doing this at the time. And there was an awful lot of trial and error involved, a lot of learning about how difficult it is to work in the water. And we finally arrived at a system that, although it's cumbersome and labor intensive, it works at our site.

Grandkid

Nana, why do you eat oysters even though you're a vegan?

Sarah

I call myself a climate vegan and eating farmed oysters, shellfish, seaweed actually makes our oceans healthier. So eating oysters could actually be considered a climate crisis solution.

Grandkid

Grandpa, wouldn't it be easier to just get wild oysters instead of farm them?

Steve

Well, you would think so since you've seen how hard it is for us to grow our oysters. But in reality, particularly in the north, there are very few oysters left. We ate them all. And those that are left are providing such great ecosystem services that we should leave them in place in the wild.

Grandkid

Nana, what does the future look like for oyster farmers?

Sarah

We are hopeful that there is a future for oyster farmers and ocean farmers, but that really depends on whether or not we prioritize, as a country, sustainable sources of protein and ocean farming. And our government and legislators need to look at it as an economic opportunity, a ,health and wellness opportunity and a great way to grow protein, grow sources of healthy food at the same time as sequestering carbon. It needs to be included as part of the solution to our climate crisis.

Sarah

But if we don't act fast, we won't be able to because we will have polluted ourselves to a point where oysters won't be able to develop in the ocean. They won't be able to grow shells. The pH is changing so quickly that it will become impossible to grow oysters. And that's the big tragedy that's facing our industry right now.

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Owner, Mook Sea Farm
Bill Mook Owner, Mook Sea Farms. © Mook Sea Farms

Bill Mook

Mook Sea Farms - Walpole, ME

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My name is Bill Mook, I own an oyster farm on the Damariscotta River in MidCoast, Maine, and this is my story. My entire life has revolved around working and playing on and in the water. And even before high school, my sights were set on a career in marine science. I graduated from college, taught science for several years, and then moved to Maine to attend graduate school in oceanography. I've been here in Maine ever since then. I managed a commercial shellfish hatchery for a few years and then in 1985 I started Mook Sea farm on the Damariscotta River.

In the early years, although we also grew oysters to market size, we were primarily a seed supplier. In our hatchery, we reared a wide range of basically all the commercially important bivalves that are found on the East Coast and we sold seed to other East Coast farmers and public restoration programs. Since about 2001 or so, we have focused solely on Eastern oysters. Climate change did appear on the radar, but it seemed a distant threat. It was unclear exactly how we would be impacted and I was completely focused on figuring out how to grow a small business and how to raise a family.

2009, however, was a crucial year. It was a real game changer. The winter was extremely warm and rainy, we had terrible problems producing oyster larvae in the hatchery, it was really stressful. We had a lot of heavy rainfall events and we realized quite early on that our problems were exacerbated by freshwater runoff. Late that fall after the hatchery season was over, Allen Barton from Whiskey Creek Oyster Hatchery in Oregon came to Maine and told us their story. He told us how working with OSU, they figured out that ocean acidification was severely impacting hatchery larval production throughout the entire Pacific Northwest.

Their larval observations were eerily similar to what we were seeing, and we really couldn't ignore them. Following their lead, we now adjust the PH of our larval cultures by buffering the water. And I can't say how grateful to this day I am that they shared their story. 2009 was also pivotal because it's we started to realize that greenhouse gas emissions were likely already taking a toll in other ways.

MSX is the oyster disease that wiped out oysters in the mid-Atlantic in the middle part of the 20th century. And over the decades, it spread north. And we had always thought that our cold winters shielded us from MSX. But after the winter of 2009, it nearly wiped out the Damariscotta River oyster farmers.

Increasingly frequent, intense storms were closing our shellfish growing areas to harvest more often because of excessive runoff and concerns about consumer safety. We were seeing more damaged gear and facilities, and even sales to major metropolitan areas were disrupted after big hurricanes and floods.

Over the next several years as climate science evolved, the IPCC assessment reports became dire and climate change became an increasingly divisive issue, I was motivated to figure out how shellfish farmers might help convince other Americans that climate change is an unprecedented crisis for all of humanity and that it requires unified action. This led to several months of talks with six other shellfish farms on both coasts and many conversations with Sally McGee. All of this resulted in the formation of the Shellfish Growers Climate Coalition in partnership with The Nature Conservancy.

Helping to form the coalition has been a great journey. There are many things that for me have stood out about the coalition. But one that keeps me optimistic is that shellfish farmers are de facto environmental stewards. Our livelihoods depend on a healthy environment, and I think that's why the coalition grew so much more quickly than any of us expected it to. We have to keep it growing.

My mother taught me that when you borrow something it is important to return it undamaged or even better than when you took possession. That's how I feel about the Earth. We have a responsibility to take care of her. In the last few years, I've become a grandfather. I want my kids and grandkids and all grandkids to be spared from the worst of the predicted climate catastrophe. I want them to benefit from a life that is based on not just taking from Mother Earth, but also taking care of her.

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A shellfish grower cleaning his crop.
Shellfish Growers are grappling with the increasing impacts of climate change. © Bethany Goodrich
Kids having fun on the water.
Life on the Coast is increasingly synonymous with more frequent and severe storms. © Jennifer Emerling
Shellfish Growers are grappling with the increasing impacts of climate change. © Bethany Goodrich
Life on the Coast is increasingly synonymous with more frequent and severe storms. © Jennifer Emerling