Climate Change Stories

Heard on the Half Shell

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

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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.

Photo of SGCC member Lissa Monberg/HamaHama
Lissa James Monberg Retail and Marketing Manager, Hama Hama. © Hama Hama

FEATURED STORY

Lissa James Monberg | Hama Hama | Lilliwaup, WA

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Hey, this is Lissa with Hama Hama. I'm speaking to you from our tide flats out in Lilliwaup, Washington, looking up at the Olympic Mountains and looking out on Hood Canal, which is flat calm right now, and the tide's coming in, so I'm going to be moving around on the flats. This is one of my favorite times to be out on the beach because as the tide comes in, it fills up all the little clam holes. All the aquatic life kind of gives a sigh of relief, as do the humans, the beach workers. It’s an opportunity to put down your clam rake, come in out of the sun. I'm joined by my four-month-old son who may or may not be quiet enough for this to work, but we're going to give it a shot.

When I think about ocean acidification and I think about climate change in general and the need to act now, I think of people like my son, who are going to inherit the world that we make. And also, this ecosystem, and how it's sustained humans for so many years. It’s made us who we are, literally. It definitely made me who I am, but I think it touches on all of our lives, really—you know, this connection to the sea little sliver of land along the continental shelves where ocean meets land and where we connect with the ocean. It's a resilient ecosystem, it's productive, it's incredibly rich and biodiverse, but it's also really fragile. And we don't really know that much about it.

You know, even the scientists will say that we've kind of just started studying this ecosystem—and really, climate change, it just changes the parameters so quickly, you know, things are changing much more quickly than we imagined. Look out on a flat calm canal and things look static, really. You know, you have this inexorable motion of the ocean as the gravitational forces act on it, and it seems kind of timeless, but I think we definitely shouldn't take it for granted and we should be humbled at how it might not always be as productive a food system as it is now.

We worry about ocean certification impacting our seed supply as farmers. But our concerns really are about our future as people—not so much the future of our business, although that's obviously of interest to us, but I really want people to understand that this isn't about our jobs as shellfish farmers.

We want all humans to benefit from the work that we're doing to raise awareness. Climate change is threatening all sorts of agricultural industries and shellfish farmers, we’re just one of the few that know about it at this point, or that are willing to acknowledge it. We've dealt with things that my grandpa, when he was working in the oyster business, never, ever had to deal with, like toxic algae blooms and, you know, different kinds of algae that’s not toxic, but that changes the color of the water—and changes it so profoundly you can you see it from space. And we’re fully committed to the oyster industry, to doing what we need to do to stay here as a business and as a family and as people who love this amazing, beautiful section of the earth that we live in. But it is, you know, when, when half the product on the beach dies and no one can give you a reason why it does, make you sit back and question what you're doing.

But built into the fabric of any shellfish farmer’s DNA is the truth that the cleaner, the water, the healthier, the water the more oysters and clams you can harvest, the more money you make. And that makes me really proud to be part of that industry and to be promoting it, because everything humans do has an impact, so it's a matter of choosing what impacts we want to have and making sure that that we're choosing things that have some kind of accountability built into them. Our company is about to be a hundred years old, but I don't even begin to guess what kind of business we'll be in, a hundred years from now. And I think it would be foolish to even attempt, but I sure hope that shellfish is part of that picture.

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More Audio Stories

Photo of SGCC members Dan and Greg Martino/Cottage City Oysters
Dan and Greg Martino Owners, Cottage City Oysters. © Cottage City Oysters

Dan and Greg Martino

Cottage City Oysters - Vineyard Haven, MA

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Greg: My name is Greg Martino and I am co-owner and farmer.

Dan: And I'm Dan Martino, co-owner/farmer of the Cottage City Oyster Farm on Martha's Vineyard. Greg and I were living on the vineyard and ended up filming a show about the Billion Oyster Project in New York City. Which is an amazing project in and of itself.

But through that experience, I was introduced to the world of oyster farming and the good that oysters can create in the environment. And it just was something that just immediately struck me as something I needed to do. So, we called up a local oyster farmer here on the vineyard, a man named Jack Blake from Sweet Neck Oysters, and just asked him if we could work on his farm and kind of pick his brain and see if this was something we wanted to jump into. And sure enough, you know, after a couple of months of doing that, it was something we decided we wanted to start a business and figure out how to start farming oysters.

Greg: We like to take on projects that are, we're not qualified for it, to be honest with you—like things that are just so difficult and maybe we don't have any experience in and we like to just learn, you know, I think that's probably one of our big strengths is that we want to learn about something and we get fascinated with something. And this was one of those things. So for us to just be like, "Hey, let's go and see what this is about and learn about it from kind of a fan perspective versus a business perspective"—that's probably what kept us going and pushing to create this business, is we were just kind of fascinated by this industry and all the hats that you get to kind of wear—engineering, creativity, marketing, the business aspect of it. There are all these components that go in; there are all these different challenges.

So, it kind of just satisfies and checks all boxes for a good quality of life, I would say. And that's what keeps us pushing forward and wanting to continue to do this. And continue to see how far it can go.

Dan: We're definitely addicted to like, getting into things that are over our heads, and like pushing ourselves.

That's part of the reason we're signed up with the climate coalition and, you know, we're working on all the acidification projects that we're working on and we're just trying to constantly push ourselves to grow.

Greg: I think that's a big reason why we got into this was not because of the challenges, but it was the benefits of aquaculture—shellfish aquaculture and seaweed culture. Maybe that we can do a small part to help the problem versus running away from it and saying, "Oh, this isn't going to work." It's, "Why don't we step up and do something that not only hits, you know, food equity, but also environmental benefits."

Dan: And then you look at an animal like an oyster whose entire job is to just filter the ocean and [eat that abundance of nitrogen before it can cause a problem—it's greatly improving the environments that you put them in. It's helping to keep these estuaries and ponds in a healthy balance, but at the same time, from a food security standpoint, you're able to grow protein with zero fresh water and zero food input. So, you're literally getting a free nugget of protein out of every oyster without having to contribute to freshwater resource depletion or over fertilization or overfeeding of food inputs.

Greg: The shells of the oysters are absorbing carbon, if we're talking specifically about carbon, and then we're removing that carbon and kind of eating it in a sense by eating the protein that's grown. And you can recycle the shell, or you can put it in your driveway, or put it in your garden. So, it's awesome that you can kind of eat your own carbon footprint in a sense.

And that's a fundamental mission of ours, is to be the most sustainable farm that we can be. Shellfish protein is the most sustainable protein that can be grown on the planet. You add that with the fact that it's actually cleaning the water and benefiting the environment, it's a no brainer—at least, you know, for us—that we need to be doing this; more people should be doing this, you know?

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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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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, right on the Mystic River, 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. 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 fishing, something related to shellfish. So I started talking to the people who worked there. One really nice guy who he grows oysters. He 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 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. 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.

I was up in Maine at shellfish growers meeting up in Maine, and 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, 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 one hundred and fifty and more keep joining.

And even through all this, they are, you know, willing to come with us to Washington, D.C. They're willing to have people come to their farms again and again and again and tell them again and again and again how you grow a shellfish.

So we've got all these business owners that care and then 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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Photo of SGCC Mark Begley/Beach Point Oysters
Mark Begley Owner and Founder, Beach Point Oysters. © Beach Point Oysters

Mark Begley

Beach Point Oysters - Cape Cod, MA

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My name is Mark Begley. I'm an oyster farmer from Cape Cod, Massachusetts. I've been growing oysters since 1999. I've been the owner of Beach Point Oysters since 1999 as well, and very interested in making sure that my children and grandchildren can also grow oysters in the future and not have climate change impact their ability to farm.

Ever since I was a child, I loved going to Cape Cod, especially in the summertime, and explore the marshes and the embankments throughout the Cape. And in doing so, used to love to the clams and find mussels and, later, I became very interested in aquaculture. And then eventually an oyster farm became available here in Barnstable and Cape Cod.

Over the years, both my sons and my daughter have helped out on the farm as well as my wife, and we've all enjoyed being out there together at various times and they've got a lot of benefits from it.

My oldest son is a doctor and when he was being interviewed for residency, the other doctors wanted to talk about the oyster farm more than they wanted to talk about his education. It was kind of funny at the time.

One of the long term challenges that my farm faces is currently it's protected from huge ocean waves by a barrier beach called Sandy Neck. And in the future, as the waves, in the winter storms especially, continue to erode away that barrier beach, at some point my farm would be exposed to the the larger waves that make it very difficult to grow oysters. So the protected waters that I have might change over time because of erosion related to the storm events that are directly attributable to climate change.

I joined the Shellfish Growers Climate Coalition because as shellfish growers we're part of a business that needs a good environment, a healthy environment in order to be sustainable. And the more we can get the word out of the problems that are related to climate change are already impacting our businesses and the environments we work in, it's so important to just give examples to people that they can relate to and understand.

One of the things I'm trying to be cognizant of is my carbon footprint with the farm itself. Just what efficiency I can have in utilizing a smaller motor for the boat that I need to take to get to the farm and efficiency in the vehicle I use to get to the water so that I'm trying to make sure that this sustainable operation is a small a carbon footprint as possible. The more sustainable I can be in how I do my farming, producing a product like oysters that are a really sustainable source of protein, the better, the better for everybody, I think.

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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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Hustleshuck - Seattle, WA
Call Nichols Owner, Hustleshuck. © Call Nichols

Call Nichols

Hustleshuck - Seattle, WA

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I was initially drawn to working in oysters because it seemed like a way to work on the water and make a living producing food. And I've always been interested in food, love, being around food, producing food, I love cooking. For me, it's just a fundamental way of connecting both with other people but also with the environment. My name is Call Nichols and I'm an oysterman.

My work in oysters has revealed the connection between humans and the environment. Really, oyster farmers are reacting. There's so much that's beyond your control. And oysters are, in my opinion, and the most honest reflection of a place in that, you know, there's very little manipulation that happens to the environment in which they're growing. This is a great thing because each oyster kind of develops its own flavor and personality based on where it came from. But at the same time, it makes actually bringing those oysters to market much more difficult.

Oyster farmers are really dependent on the natural environment and seeing what these animals go through and how they're affected by various conditions, you know, and then going even further back, how we, in fact, create those conditions is a pretty powerful model, I think, for connecting ourselves and our own actions to the larger picture of our environment, our planet and climate as a whole. It's pretty chilling to think about what the possible future might look like.

And, you know, when you have something as valuable as this industry, both economically but also culturally, ecologically, you can't help but think about what your role is going to be, what you're going to do to affect this in a positive way.

That is kind of where I got drawn to the Shellfish Growers Climate Coalition. First really got involved in March of 2020 when I joined the Coalition in Washington, D.C. for their annual Hill Day. That was a really invigorating trip for me. It made me feel really proud to be an oysterman and be a part of this industry. I was just amazed to see the spread of people that we had there. I mean, you had some of the most established growers in the country, but then you also had new upstarts, chemists, folks with policy backgrounds.

These legislators and representatives and folks on the Hill were really interested in what we had to say. It hit home that we had a really important message to share. I think the potential for the coalition is massive to bring and amplify both the business community and the coastal communities in kind of uniting a voice for climate action. I think oysters are a very powerful vehicle for delivering a critical message right now, which is that we need to take care of this planet.

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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