Sector News

The Heroic Oyster: a tale of two projects

March 31, 2023

A memorable dinner companion in the Scottish Highlands, a marine scientist, once confided he would never eat shellfish. He had grown up on a farm that raised sheep and had no compunction about eating lamb. But asking him to sample the marine life he was dedicated to protecting was a bridge too far.

Here in the U.S., one of my favorite people is an environmentally savvy trial attorney in the Pacific Northwest who has made his name and a tidy living representing victims of food poisoning. You couldn’t pay him enough to consume oysters.

And then there are the never satisfied oyster lovers, like 19th century French poet Leo-Paul Fargue who famously remarked “eating oysters is like kissing the sea on the lips.” Somewhere in between the gourmands and the “just say ‘no’” crowd are those who simply enjoy oysters raw, stewed, fried, roasted, and a multitude of other ways.

At the end of the day, one conviction all of these people share is that, when it comes to oysters, there should be more of them. The humble oyster clarifies and oxygenates water, physical oyster reef structures provide habitats for other species, and they are a net positive for absolute biodiversity.

But as we continue to pick up after the mess that industry and humankind in general have made of the environment, climate, and habitats, ocean species are on the ropes, including the centuries old food favorite, the oyster. Here’s how two different players separated by 5,000 miles are taking on the challenge.

Hog Island Oyster Co. California

On the California coast just north of San Francisco, where eucalyptus trees have taken over and the air is filled with their crisp fragrance, Hog Island Oyster Co. has had a rough winter. A mecca for shellfish lovers, the business spent many winter weeks this year waiting for historic torrents of rain to end. Founder and CEO John Finger cultivates several varieties of shellfish, all of which are in high demand.

He owns a total of five food establishments, from upscale restaurants in Napa, San Francisco, and Marin County, to the more casual Tony’s Seafood and the Hog Island Oyster store, right on Tomales Bay. The picnic area there is where Finger describes the menu with complete delight. “Friday through Monday, we have raw oysters, grilled oysters, a salad or two, cheese charcuterie, wine, beer beverages, local bread and that’s it! A rustic experience!”

His trademark product is the Hog Island Sweetwater, which is the Pacific oyster. In the waters of Tomales Bay, he’s also growing the eastern or “Atlantic” oyster, transported to the West Coast on the rails in the 1870’s. Also in his repertoire: some Olympia, some Japanese Kumamoto oysters, and some native European flat oysters. His products are wildly popular and, in 40 years of business, he says he’s never met demand.

Supply has been dramatically reduced in the most recent winter’s unremitting rain. More than a dozen “atmospheric rivers” – profoundly soaking sustained precipitation events – have hit California since late December. For oyster farmers who, unlike terrestrial farmers, have no crop insurance, the consequences can be severe. To start with, harvests are not possible in heavy weather, so inventory drops. At Hog Island Oyster restaurants, if oysters are served during these conditions, very often they are from an outside vendor. Furthermore, a moratorium is called on marketing oysters whenever they may have been saturated in waters that could be contaminated by backed up drains and agricultural run-off.

As the ninth storm of its kind approached California in January 2023, Finger expected to be out of his own inventory for potentially the whole month. Combined with a weather-related reduction in business, he anticipated missed revenues could range from $150,000 to $200,000. “By the end of March, we’ve been able to harvest intermittently,” says Finger, “but these past few months have been some of our longest closures in company history.”

“What we have seen is exactly what the climate scientists say is going to happen,” says Finger. In years past, he said “we might have a certain amount of rainfall over the wintertime, but it was spaced out through a half inch here, three quarters of an inch there, then a break in the weather.” The multi-inch rainfall in a single day is the kind of climate change his business has been planning for, investing in a hatchery to cultivate more resilient oysters, expanding farming to an additional location, and incorporating uniquely designed filtered seawater tanks to hold extra inventory. “Our live wet storage is a system of tanks designed to hold living oysters in a UV filtered, chilled seawater setting very similar to their natural surroundings,” says Finger.

He is passionate about the good in his product and about doing his work mindfully. Successful business practices and doing what’s right are the same thing, he says. Hog Island Oyster works with, not in spite of, nature, reducing the company’s carbon output step by step, with more fuel efficient vehicles, solar panels on buildings, avoiding cross-country shipping whenever possible.

The company was one of six founding members of a lobby group called “the Shellfish Growers Climate Coalition.” 200 businesses now belong.

Robert Jones, global lead for aquaculture at The Nature Conservancy (TNC), collaborated on the start-up advocacy group. “There’s a growing existential challenge of a changing climate and shellfish farming has been the canary in the coal mine. Hatcheries have been finding it harder to consistently produce seed for the oyster industry,” says Jones, because unsettled over-heated water makes shells more brittle and in general undermines the reproductive and survival process.

The Coalition and TNC have been taking their case to state and federal lawmakers to push for national policies that tackle climate change at its roots. This would include changes that result in reduced emissions and decarbonization of industries. “The biggest thing that we’re trying to do with this,” says Jones, “is build great awareness that there is a constituency among the business community to push for action on climate change, and the aquaculture community is one of those lead sectors.”

Still, when business is good, it’s very good. And Finger believes part of the reason is that people are waking up to the close correlation of climate positivity to food value that comes with oysters. “Here’s a food you can grow; once it’s in the bay, it’s all about the environment. We’re not feeding, we’re not fertilizing. It’s all about what Mother Nature provides. And we’re growing all of this animal protein with hardly any fresh water. That’s a big deal.”

Finally, says Finger, “the other part of this is the biodiversity piece. Because water flow is so important to us, we can’t keep things out. We had a sea grant student take a ‘200 micron mesh bag’ around one bag of oysters in the summertime and counted over 100 species of flora and fauna in one bag of oysters.”

That environmental charisma, an oyster community’s unique ability to attract other living things, is central to the global marine push to restore oyster reefs.

Highland Oysters

In Scotland, researchers at Heriot Watt University now say they have scientifically documented the oyster’s biodiversity-building impact , reporting their work in a newly published paper appearing in the peer-reviewed scientific journal scientific journal PLOS ONE.

The Glenmorangie Company, a five star Scotch Whisky maker in the Scottish Highlands, is the primary sponsor of the Heriot-Watt research effort. In a collaboration with the university and with the Marine Conservation Society, the whisky company undertook its oyster reef restoration project in the Dornoch Firth in 2014. The goal is to re-introduce a robust bar of native European flat oysters, once located off the shores of the Distillery. The species faded there at the turn of the 20th century, as it did all over Europe, due to a few factors, including over-consumption. The oysters in the project are strictly not for consumption.

The just-released study examines specific conditions at centuries-old oyster fishery Loch Ryan in southwest Scotland. Heriot Watt researchers report that, in their test case, where undisturbed oyster growth was permitted for six years, sections of marine populations exhibited a significant expansion of biodiversity. Extrapolating their findings, the research team projects that DEEP could have the impact of doubling biodiversity in the Dornoch Firth over ten years.

DEEP is a project rooted in contemporary business goals of actively nurturing community and environment. Said the company’s Corporate Social Responsibility Director Hamish Torrie, “Glenmorangie is dedicated to protecting and improving the beautiful surroundings of the Dornoch Firth which has been home to our Distillery for 180 years.”

Great idea, says Tony Chen, who decided to recast his life about five years ago, walking away from his job at Booz Allen Hamilton in Washington do something different. He started a company called Manolin, a data analytics company focused on the sustainability of aquaculture. The business is based in Denver, Colorado and Bergen, Norway. He has about a dozen clients, all in Norway. Chen is deep into ocean conservation and how 21st century technology and data methods can identify weaknesses and boost production.

“I love what the distillery is doing. It’s going to create lots of benefits for them in the future,” says Chen. “You see things today that are happening in the ocean that come from ocean finance: for example, carbon credits. There are other ways to make money in the ocean, outside of just growing oysters for food, and I hope that the project restoring this reef can make it happen.”

Over the past nine years of minutely planned steps, the “Dornoch Environmental Enhancement Project” (DEEP) has so far introduced 60,000 fresh native European flat oysters. The plan is to keep going until there are four million, although inventory is a perpetual challenge.

At the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, research professor Ryan Carnegie says – sure, four million sounds like a lot, but it’s not unheard of. “In eastern oyster restoration, we’re getting into some very large numbers that have been planted. These are massive goals of putting out a whole lot of animals and you’re hoping there’s going to be good survival and so on. Four million ostrea edulis (native European flat oysters) seems like a big number to me. But I don’t know that that is so out of line with the scale of some of the major projects, here in North America for instance.”

A specialist in marine pathogens, Carnegie says a concern consistently will be for the oysters to survive the rampant parasite bonamia, known to prey especially upon the native European flat. “That being said,” Carnegie stipulates, “we’re optimistic in these host-pathogen systems that there’s a level of adaptation of the animals to intense disease pressure. We could be optimistic this dynamic could play out in a positive way.”

Globally, over the past two centuries, 85% of the world’s oyster reefs have disappeared. Overconsumption, pollution, climate change and related marine pathogens have all played a role.

by Louise Schiavone


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