Oyster extravaganza!

Valentine's weekend may be your best chance to eat oysters for years to come

In the short term there will be fewer oysters. But hurricanes have been pounding the Gulf Coast since the beginning of time. Oysters are resilient. Whenever they sense changes in water temperature or salinity, they go into a reproductive orgy, ensuring their survival by spawning enormous clouds of offspring. Hopeful oyster industry experts say there is every reason to expect that, two years from now, the Texas oyster harvest will be bigger than ever. Louisiana, the nation's largest oyster-producing state, could return to full production in two years as well.

Meanwhile, other oyster areas are taking up the slack. Bright spots include New Jersey, Florida, and Mississippi, all of which have dramatically increased their production in the last three years.

But the problems with oyster larvae in Washington state hatcheries are a much more frightening situation. The failure was originally attributed to an oyster pathogen called vibrio tubiashii. Last summer, newspapers reported that a $200,000 filtering system installed on one large hatchery would restore production to normal. But according to Bill Taylor, president of Taylor Shellfish, the oyster larvae are still dying despite the fact that vibrio tubiashii is no longer present.

Dan Kramer
Jon Rowley, known as the P.T. Barnum of the oyster industry, made Totten Inlet Virginica oysters famous
Robb Walsh
Jon Rowley, known as the P.T. Barnum of the oyster industry, made Totten Inlet Virginica oysters famous

Marine biologists suspect that the larvae are being affected by changes in the pH level of the seawater being pumped into the hatchery. Typically, seawater has a pH between 8.1 and 8.3. Taylor says the water at Taylor's Quilcene hatchery on the Hood Canal is testing at levels as low as 7.2. (Lower pH equals higher acid.) The acidity is highest within a hundred miles of the Pacific Coast of North America. It hasn't affected seed oysters that are already growing, but there is a shortage of new seed as fewer spats are forming in the hatchery.

And it's not just the hatchery that's affected. "We used to see a natural spat set in places like Willapa Bay," Taylor says. "But there hasn't been a spat set in Willapa Bay in four years now."

Taylor Shellfish has another hatchery, in Hawaii, that hasn't been affected yet, so there will still be a source of seed for half-shell oysters for a while to come, Bill Taylor says. But if ocean acidification turns out to be the root cause of the hatchery failures, the future of the American oyster industry may depend on how fast we can reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

A shortage of oysters over the next couple of years may be inevitable. But will it be a temporary dip in a generally upward curve? Or are we at the pinnacle of the "Great American Oyster Renaissance," looking at a long downhill slide?

"I have my fingers crossed," Taylor says. "Ocean acidification has the potential to be worse than the pollution problems we solved with the Clean Water Act."

Robb Walsh is the author of Sex, Death, and Oysters: A Half-Shell Lover's World Tour, which was released January 20.

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