Climate change turns Puget Sound acidic and region’s signature oysters struggle to survive

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Using a hose, Adam Kravitz transplants oysters from one area to another in Mud Bay near Olympia, Washington, at one of Taylor Shellfish’s many farms in Puget Sound. Photo by Paul Joseph Brown/InvestigateWest

Bill Taylor’s first memory is of falling out of a boat at about age 3.

Taylor’s father was working the family shellfish farm in the chill waters of Puget Sound, Washington’s scenic inland sea, with his young son in tow. It all happened pretty fast, but fortunately Taylor’s dad plucked him out of danger’s way.

Nearly 60 years later, Bill Taylor is trying to figure out how to rescue his family’s fifth-generation shellfish-farming operation from an ocean that’s turning more acidic due to global climate change. This save is going to be a lot harder.

It’s a calamity that threatens Washington state’s $270-million-a-year shellfish industry. And it has the Taylors — after a century-plus producing shellfish in the Evergreen State — exploring every potential angle to steel their mollusks against the corrosive effects of ocean acidification.

The Taylors did not set out to fight climate change. But after decades of muddy hard work building a shellfish-farming empire along the shores of Puget Sound, Taylor Shellfish Farms was hit with a crisis: The rate of survival for their oyster larvae — the free-swimming, nearly invisible infant oysters — plunged roughly three-quarters.

For oyster growers, this is huge. If an oyster grower doesn’t have baby oyster larvae, there’s no “seed” to morph into the prized mollusks served on the half shell at oyster bars around the world.

Bill Taylor’s simple bottom line: “Without seed, you’re not in business any longer.”

Walking into Taylor Shellfish’s headquarters in the logging town of Shelton, you might forget the company’s elite status among shellfish producers. Tucked off Highway 101, Taylor’s offices are housed in a modest, mid-century rambler, formerly home to Bill Taylor’s Uncle Edwin and Aunt Norma. The conversion is somewhat incomplete; the kitchen still is outfitted with aged cupboards and appliances that recall the 1950s. Out back, the home’s large former chicken coop serves as a retail-sales space and a shellfish processing facility.

But despite the humble trappings, the truth is that Bill Taylor, along with his younger brother Paul and brother-in-law, Jeff Pearson, are co-owners of the largest farmed shellfish producer in the nation.

The family business employs 750 workers, including Bill’s two daughters and five nieces, nephews and their spouses. Taylor Shellfish has operations in Washington, California, Hawaii, British Columbia, Hong Kong and Fiji. The company flies its renowned oysters, clams, geoduck and mussels to restaurants and markets internationally.

But oysters don’t happen without oyster babies. On the shores of an evergreen-lined bay in a canal of Puget Sound, the company produced more than 6 billion oyster larvae in 2016. Water from the canal is pumped to indoor larval tanks. In the swirling water, the mollusk babies look like nothing more than a cloud of silt. Over two to three weeks, they devour algae and steadily build their pearly shells.

Even in modernized shellfish facilities, raising mollusks is tricky business. Bacteria, viruses, poisonous algae, warm temperatures, salinity fluctuations — all are potential killers of young oysters.

“The water is complex and the shellfish are highly sensitive,” Taylor said.

When the Taylors’ larval crisis hit in the mid-to-late 2000s, other growers were struck, too. Whiskey Creek, a well-established operation based on the Oregon coast, lost oysters at even higher rates. The hatchery reported that the baby larvae were dissolving in their tanks. The shellfish farmers struggled to pinpoint the culprit.

“You’re kind of like a blind man trying to find your way out of the kingdom,” Taylor said. “You’re trying to feel around and find what is it that’s causing the problem.”

After considering their suspects, the growers settled on an offender: a bacterium later identified as Vibrio coralliilyticus. They quickly installed more sophisticated filtration systems at their hatcheries to purge the invader, hoping that would save their microscopic broods.

It didn’t. In fact, even more larvae died the next year. Vibrio, while not entirely innocent, was likely only an accessory to the deaths. What was the root cause, though?

Oysters built a dynasty

Before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the first Earth Day and the advent of the modern environmental movement, the Taylor family stood strong against pollution — not because they were tree-hugging greenies, but because their livelihood was at stake.

It all started when a pulp mill opened in Shelton in 1927 on the shores of Oakland Bay. The mill provided desperately needed jobs as the Great Depression was taking hold, but also unleashed a torrent of toxic sulfite waste liquor.

“When the pulp mill hit, it pretty well devastated the industry,” Taylor said. The local growers sued to stop the pollution, but couldn’t convince the courts of the link between the mill and the disappearing oysters. In their desperation, the shellfish growers even considered getting a town drunk to burn down the mill.

Luckily the oyster farmers caught the attention of the governor before anyone resorted to arson. The government declared a state of emergency and in 1957 refused to renew the mill’s operating permit, stopping the flow of waste.

Paul Joseph Brown / InvestigateWest

Diani Taylor holds young oysters that have managed to produce shells. Photo by Paul Joseph Brown/InvestigateWest

The bay began recovering, but a new threat soon emerged. Decades ago, sewage treatment plants were required to provide only minimal treatment of human waste. So oysters were regularly awash in bacteria, making them inedible.

The 1972 federal Clean Water Act forced the plants to improve waste treatment in Puget Sound. Yet another challenge lurked just around the bend. Taylor had returned from college in 1980 when measurements of fecal coliform, a bacterium found in the guts of people and other mammals, began to inexplicably spike again, like in the bad old days of the underperforming sewage plants.

“I remember this very vividly,” Taylor said, recalling the day he was told: “We’ve got to close this shellfish bed, but I can’t tell you why.”

When they unraveled the mystery, the news wasn’t good. The bacteria were linked to the surging number of people living, working and driving near Puget Sound. The pollution oozed from poorly designed and malfunctioning septic systems. Waste from livestock washed into streams and bays. And rainwater runoff scoured metals, oil and grease and more bacteria from roads and rooftops and flushed it straight into the sea.

When it came to these widespread pollution sources, “in the early ‘80s, we didn’t know much about it and had no idea how to control it,” Taylor said.

Research, regulations and public education have helped curb the pollution. In the past decade, more than 3,800 acres of Washington shellfish beds previously deemed unsafe for harvest have been cleaned up and reopened. However, the overall acreage of beds that are closed or restricted for harvest has expanded, in part due to increased water-quality testing that reveals formerly unknown problems.

And while the Taylors have fought for cleaner water, there have been times when the family has been on the opposite side of those concerned about tidelands. Environmental groups and restaurant chefs objected to a plan by local shellfish growers to use pesticides to control burrowing shrimp that were killing their mollusks. There have been protracted fights over geoduck farming, which shoreline-protection advocates consider damaging to the ecology.

Through it all, the Taylors have successfully weathered each wave of ecological challenges, the next more daunting than the last.

“It’s part of my family legacy and something we’ve always been a part of,” said Diani Taylor, Bill’s daughter. “I’ve been fortunate enough to see environmental issues get turned around and addressed.”

But the new threat lapping at their shore is a much bigger, more unwieldy foe than they’ve ever confronted.

A major discovery

Around the same time as the oyster larvae die-offs, Richard Feely was collecting seawater samples from the rocking deck of the RV Wecoma. In the summer of 2007, the 185-feet-long research vessel was cruising the West Coast from British Columbia to the tip of the Baja California peninsula.

Feely, an oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and fellow scientists wanted to understand how the Pacific Ocean was responding to a world being transformed by climate change.

One of the key factors that they were eager to explore was the ocean’s pH, a measurement of acidity on a scale of 0 to 14, with 7 being neutral, such as distilled water. Lemon juice has a pH of about 2, while basic substances include bleach, with a pH of 12.6. The decimal points are important because the pH scale is exponential, meaning water with a pH of 7 is 10 times more acidic than pH 8 water.

The researchers knew that as humans burned fossil fuels and released increasing amounts of carbon dioxide, oceans were absorbing some of it from the atmosphere. They also knew that the gas makes water more acidic. The oceans are vast, but not boundless. So how much, they wondered, would the sea already reflect the ill-effects of overdosing on carbon dioxide?

Using a winch and an A-frame, the researchers would lower to the bottom of the ocean a “rosette package” — a bundle of 24 black PVC tubes called Niskin bottles. As they reeled the bottles back up, the scientists remotely triggered them to snap shut one-by-one, capturing a slug of water at two-dozen depths until they reached the surface. They repeated the process more than 100 times along the coast.

Standing on deck with a waterproof clipboard in hand, chief scientist Feely ran the show. He was in charge of handing out the samples to the scientists, who then rushed to their onboard labs to analyze the water.

They were shocked by what they saw.

“It was the first place in the world where we saw corrosive waters at the surface,” Feely said in a recent interview with InvestigateWest for weather.com. It happened offshore of California. But they continued to find unexpectedly acidic water throughout the voyage.

“We found it everywhere we looked,” he said, “from Canada to Mexico.”

Human carbon emissions aside, the West Coast of North America is naturally prone to experiencing some of the most corrosive ocean conditions in the world. Deep below the surface of the Pacific, seawater circulates for 30 to 50 years. This water contains higher levels of carbon dioxide due to natural respiration processes and to the carbon dioxide absorbed when the water was last in contact with the atmosphere. Then for many months beginning each spring, “coastal upwelling” carries the deep, acidic water up over the continental shelf and into proximity with shellfish and other shoreline marine life.

NOAA / NOAA

These bottles are lowered to the ocean depths to capture water samples at various depths to be tested for acidity. Photo courtesy NOAA

Even taking natural conditions into account, “none of us expected the extreme changes that we were seeing,” Feely said. Water this acidic wasn’t predicted to reach the surface for another 50 to 100 years. “We were just amazed. We realized it was incredibly important and a major discovery.”

A family tradition in peril

Making her way through the house-cum-global shellfish farming headquarters, Diani Taylor, who wears her long, curly red hair pulled back, pauses at her office. She introduces two officemates, who also happen to be her cousins.

“We all worked on the farm in high school,” explained Diani, who recently earned a law degree and is studying for the bar exams.

When she was a teen, Diani and her cousins cleaned algae and other sea muck off of giant bins that are submerged in Puget Sound to grow juvenile shellfish. She planted thumb-sized geoducks inside protective plastic tubes inserted in mudflats. While other teens waited tables or flipped burgers, she wrestled into hip-wader boots and a heavy jacket to tend oysters in deep mud in the bay in front of her grandparents’ house.

The ocean tides set their work schedule. If the low tide was 10 a.m., Diani and her cousins needed to get to the beaches by around 7 a.m.

“I really loved working on the farm, on the beach,” said Diani. “It’s always just beautiful, the most beautiful part of Puget Sound — literally you’re on the Sound. It is hard work, but it’s also really rewarding.”

And it’s definitely part of the family tradition.

“I grew up and my brother, Paul, and sister, we grew up on a shellfish farm on Totten Inlet,” said Bill Taylor, leaning over a conference table in the Shelton office, his white hair close cropped and the sleeves of his checkered shirt rolled up to his elbows. Diani sits beside him. “We started really, really young being involved in the business.”

Bill Taylor at the shore of Puget Sound. Photo by Paul Joseph Brown/InvestigateWest

Diani certainly doesn’t see Taylor Shellfish Farms shuttering their operations with herself and her cousins.

“We are a long-term business and want to continue on for another five generations,” Diani said. “So you really are looking far into the future to devise the best options today and down the road.”

To keep their family business afloat, though, the Taylors are going to have to pull off what promises to be the hardest fight in their five generations.

A dose of marine antacid

In the first hours and days after an oyster hatches, the embryo has an urgent to-do list: build a shell and make a velum, the organ used to eat and swim. And it has to perform these crucial tasks before burning up the fuel that came preloaded in its egg.

To grow its shell, the nascent mollusk uses carbonate ions pulled from the water. The carbonate is turned into a form of calcium carbonate called aragonite, which is the mineral building block of the baby oyster’s tough exterior.

The problem is that as water becomes more acidic, there is less carbonate available for shell building, requiring the larva to burn more of that preloaded energy to construct its sturdy home. Worse still, aragonite is more vulnerable to dissolving than other forms of calcium carbonate, putting juvenile oysters, clams and mussels that rely on it at greater risk.

On a grassy hill above the beach at the Taylor Shellfish hatchery on Puget Sound is a putty-colored Rubbermaid garden shed. The unassuming shelter houses equipment for monitoring the seawater being drawn into the hatchery. A key tool is the “Burkelator” — a big boxy machine named for its developer, Oregon State University professor Burke Hales. Inside the Burkelator is all manner of high-tech gadgetry to measure the seawater’s salinity, temperature and carbon dioxide in different forms. The data are run through chemistry algorithms that churn out pH and aragonite levels.

Since 2010, Benoit Eudeline, Taylor Shellfish’s director of research and technology, has used the monitoring gear to track ever-changing ocean conditions. Winds from the north can drive the upwelling of deep, acidic water. Sunshine can trigger blooms of algae that suck up carbon dioxide while alive, but release souring gases when they die and rot. Heavy rains lower the salinity.

Before the monitors, the hatchery operators were largely flying blind.

“It’s a good tool to have. It really helps you understand what you are fighting,” Eudeline said. “It tells you, ‘Whoa, this is coming,’ when before you had no idea.”

Inside the warehouse-style hatchery buildings next to the shed, PVC pipes connect to a vat containing a solution of sodium carbonate, a chemical similar to baking soda. If monitors detect a harmful pH, a pump starts chugging way, sending a dose of the marine antacid into the seawater before it reaches the larvae.

Benoit Eudeline at the “Burkelator” that measures acidity and other elements where oysters grow up. Photo by Paul Joseph Brown/InvestigateWest

Sometimes the larvae still die, and Eudeline cautions that acidification is far from the only problem the oysters face. But the system has helped. Additional upgrades to the hatchery are further treating the seawater to remove bacteria and other threats.

However, the oysters only spend a few weeks being coddled indoors. The rest of the time, they must survive and thrive in the wild. So Taylor Shellfish has two strategies for safeguarding its shellfish crop: spread the risk and breed more robust oysters.

Even before the acidification issues arose, Taylor Shellfish started raising baby oysters and clams on Hawaii’s big island. The weather is great for growing the massive volumes of algae that the hatchery shellfish consume. For slightly older shellfish, the company has nurseries in Shelton and California. And for growing their mollusks to adulthood, they use tidelands spanning Puget Sound and into British Columbia.

The company also farms a variety of shellfish, including different species of oysters, geoduck, mussels and clams.

The business is actively involved in oyster breeding programs to create hardier stocks. At their own hatchery, Taylor Shellfish recently started breeding disease-resistant oysters. For more than 20 years, they’ve participated in an Oregon State University program to improve oyster yield, which is now also looking for shellfish better able to withstand more acidic conditions.

The hope is that with the diversification in shellfish and locations, “no one disaster can take us down,” said Bill Dewey, director of public affairs for Taylor Shellfish.

Countless other species, however, don’t have the safety net offered by hatchery tanks. They’re undergoing their own high-stakes, Darwinian selection in Puget Sound and other marine waters.

More than 30 percent of marine species in Puget Sound build shells and skeletons from calcium carbonate. That includes crabs, geoducks, mussels, barnacles, sea urchins, sand dollars and tiny marine organisms that are essential food for salmon and other sea life. In addition to dissolving shells, more acidic waters can disrupt key functions like sense of smell and the ability to spawn.

The impact could be huge for the human population. On average, people eat 44 pounds of seafood each year, according to the United Nations. And the changes that the Taylors are seeking to carefully control at their farms cannot be managed in the oceans that feed most of the world’s 7.5 billion people. As climate change ramps up, so too does the global population and food demands. To feed 9 billion people — a benchmark that the Earth could surpass by midcentury — the planet needs to produce at least 50 percent more food.

No one knows exactly how marine life around the world will fare as the seas continue to sour, but fear is spreading.

“People who are aware are panicked,” said Dewey, who recently traveled to New York to speak at the United Nation’s first Ocean Conference. “The level of awareness is increasing rapidly and the story is getting out there.”

And as with other effects of climate change, ocean acidification in areas of upwelling won’t improve anytime soon. Recall that the corrosive levels detected by Feely and the other scientists came from water last at the surface around the 1970s. Seawater absorbing record-high carbon dioxide today will cycle deep below the ocean and return in roughly a half century.

“If we don’t resolve the problem in the very near future it’s going to get much, much worse in our region,” Feely said. “Do we continue the approach we have of ignoring the problem, or do we address the problem to really combat the acidification?”

Saving a poster child

In a world struggling to understand the ramifications of climate change, the Northwest’s dissolving oyster babies have become the poster child for ocean acidification.

“We’ve been able to tell a story about it,” Bill Taylor said. “Most people are talking theory, but we’re talking about something that happens.”

The death of the oyster larvae has proven so compelling that it motivated former Gov. Chris Gregoire and current Gov. Jay Inslee to form panels and councils to address the problem. It has pulled together wide-ranging interests — industry representatives, policymakers from all levels of government, tribal representatives and conservation groups — to tackle acidification through policies and research.

They created the Ocean Acidification Center at the University of Washington, the monitoring program at Taylor Shellfish and other farms, funded hatchery upgrades and more research. In December, Inslee announced that Washington was a founding member of the International Alliance to Combat Ocean Acidification.

Processing oysters at Taylor Shellfish Farms. Photo by Paul Joseph Brown/InvestigateWest

“When you are hearing about ocean acidification nationally, so often the connection is made to shellfish in the Pacific Northwest,” said Julie Horowitz, shellfish policy advisor for Inslee.

And while ocean acidification is driven by global carbon dioxide levels, local efforts can help the oysters. Shellfish farmers are working to reduce the amount of nitrogen and organic carbon flowing into Puget Sound, as both pollutants exacerbate acidification. They’re experimenting with growing their shellfish alongside seaweed and algae that gobble up carbon dioxide, creating pockets of seawater that are less sour.

“I don’t know how to fix ocean acidification, but we can plan around it with the tools and science that we have,” Diani Taylor said. “You can find a lot of positivity in this; I feel like the response has been to attack the issue from many different angles.”

The Taylors aren’t ready to hang up their hip waders anytime soon. Over more than 120 years, with each environmental hurdle, they’ve refined their grit and resolve to battle ocean acidification and continue tending their oysters.

“As my dad said, ‘You’re the mouse at the elephants’ ball. You need to yell and scream to not get squashed,’” Bill Taylor said. “We’ve realized that we have to speak out, or we’re going to be out of business.”

Dock at Taylor Shellfish Farms in Mud Bay. Photo by Paul Joseph Brown/InvestigateWest

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