oysters-to-the-rescue

By Molly Bogeberg, marine and coastal conservation specialist

When an oyster raised on a shellfish farm leaves the tideflats, it is typically bound for a restaurant or market. The COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench in this supply chain as people exchanged outings to restaurants and shellfish bars for cooking at home. While some shellfish farms were able to adapt and sell directly to consumers, many shellfish growers around the country experienced significant declines revenue.

Olympia oysters are transferred from Chelsea Farms to the Squaxin Island Tribe for restoration. © Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission (NWIFC)/Debbie Ross-Preston

Olympia oysters are transferred from Chelsea Farms to the Squaxin Island Tribe for restoration. © Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission (NWIFC)/Debbie Ross-Preston

Oyster farming not only provides jobs in rural communities, but oysters themselves provide habitat for marine life and improve environmental quality by filtering water. So, if native oysters were no longer headed to restaurants, could they be purchased and used for restoring coastal habitats? This question led The Nature Conservancy and Pew Charitable Trusts to develop the Supporting Oyster Aquaculture and Restoration (SOAR) initiative to purchase native oysters from shellfish growers to support the industry during this difficult time while also supporting local restoration efforts. The goal was to purchase and transfer 5 million native oysters from farm to tidelands on the East Coast and in Washington State.

Olympia oyster © TNC/Molly Bogeberg

Olympia oyster © TNC/Molly Bogeberg

In Washington, we have one native oyster species, the Olympia oyster (Ostrea lurida). This oyster’s habitat range extends along the Pacific Coast from Baja California, Mexico to British Columbia, Canada. The Olympia oyster was once plentiful along the West Coast, forming natural oyster beds up to a foot thick.   However, from 1850 to the early 1900s, overharvesting and other environmental impacts resulted in steep declines in the native oyster. To bring back native Olympia oyster populations, tribes, government staff (e.g. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife), scientists, industry, conservation organizations and community members have come together to restore oyster beds. For example, over the past 10 years, the Puget Sound Restoration Fund has worked with partners to restore 100 acres of Olympia oyster habitat in the Puget Sound.

Molly Bogeberg (TNC) and Eric Sparkman (Squaxin Island Tribe Natural Resources) spread Olympia oysters onto Squaxin Island tidelands from the transfer boat. © NWIFC/Debbie Ross-Preston

Molly Bogeberg (TNC) and Eric Sparkman (Squaxin Island Tribe Natural Resources) spread Olympia oysters onto Squaxin Island tidelands from the transfer boat. © NWIFC/Debbie Ross-Preston

To build upon the existing restoration efforts in Puget Sound, the SOAR program in Washington has been purchasing native, commercially raised, Olympia oysters from shellfish growers with available stocks and coordinating the transfer of oysters to restoration sites. SOAR has also been purchasing Pacific oyster shells, which are a critical resource for native oyster restoration. Oyster shell is used to “enhance” tidelands by providing structure on the tideflats, helping to recruit and grow native oysters.

ABC News Highlights TNC Oyster Restoration

We’ve been excited to support ongoing efforts to restore Olympia oysters while providing funds to shellfish growers in Washington as they recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to the oyster purchase program, a Shellfish Growers Resiliency Fund has been initiated to provide grant funds to shellfish growers, industry, scientists, and NGOs looking to promote a more resilient and sustainable shellfish industry.  

Participating Shellfish Farms & Farmers:

  • Chelsea Farms

  • David Vimont

  • Goose Point Oysters 

  • John Adams

  • J.J. Brenner Oyster Farm

  • Wallins Oyster Company

  • Northern Oyster Co.

  • Set and Drift

Participating Restoration Practitioners and Tribes:

  • John Adams 

  • Skokomish Tribe

  • Squaxin Island Tribe

Banner photo © NWIFC/Debbie Ross-Preston


 

 

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