Thursday, March 14, 2019

Sharing the science of shellfish

Chris McGann

WSDA Aquaculture Coordinator Laura Butler is working to
support shellfish aquaculture in Washington. 
Aquatic science and problem-solving took center stage at the 26th Conference for Shellfish Growers this week, hosted by Washington Sea Grant.

Scientists, growers, and state and federal agency representatives came together to share research and their experiences surrounding the perplexing lives of shellfish.

Is toxic algae bloom the culprit behind summer shellfish die off?  How can we keep oyster herpes virus out of Northwest waters? Manage ghost shrimp? Cope with ocean acidification and rising sea temperatures?

These were some of the issues panelists explored during the two-day event that took place in the tiny coastal town of Union on lower Hood Canal.

Some answers were clearer than others, and some research findings seemed to raise as many questions as they answered. But for the 167 participants, the event was an opportunity to tap into the expertise of this close-knit, esoteric community to continue seeking solutions.

Where else could you entertain a question like: “Why do some oysters just stop eating?” or “Why do baby geoducks refuse to dig themselves into the sand?”

Biologist Nick Wenzel appreciates the
the opportunity to network with other
aquaculture enthusiasts.
Value of the network

Nick Wenzel is a shellfish biologist with a keen focus on geoducks, a freakishly large clam that boasts a neck more than three feet long and bodies almost double the size of their shells.

Wenzel shared his efforts to try to find out what caused a recent batch of juvenile geoducks to simply refuse to dig in.

He told the audience he wasn’t sure if the problem had to do with something in the water or if it was something more, motivational.

He said the conference and others like it are an important resource, because geoduck farming is such a young industry.

“The best part is the networking,” he said. “The people you meet here have a wealth of information and they are willing to share it.”

WSDA supports aquaculture

In 2018, estimates of Washington state
shellfish exports exceeded $126 million. 
WSDA Aquaculture Coordinator Laura Butler wants to help support that critical network of subject matter experts. She was among the panelists, raising awareness about our agency’s relatively new role in supporting the industry through outreach, marketing and networking.

She said it makes sense for WSDA to play a supporting role as a non-regulatory agency working with this industry.

"There is no doubt that shellfish farmers are farmers," she said. "They are just working in the unique environment of the intertidal zone."

A mystery in a shell

The shellfish industry is important to the economic vitality of many small coastal communities. In 2018, estimates of Washington state shellfish exports exceeded $126 million.

But the industry is built around a highly enigmatic animal.

“Oysters are like an alien life form, they are so different than other animals,” said Washington Sea Grant Aquaculture Specialist Brent Vadopalas. "Genetically they are really bizarre. They are bizarre in almost every way."

For example, Vadopalas explains that the animal kingdom includes species that are male or female and species that are hermaphrodite.

“But the Olympia oyster, our native oyster, it will flip back and forth between male and female within a single season, the same individual,” he said. “Why would it do that? It makes no sense.”

That’s just one of the many mysteries these slippery creatures hold for Vadopalas and other shellfish researchers and growers.

Although there is so much still to learn, we can be certain that as long as clean waters rise and fall over Northwest tidelands, these farmers will be looking for ways to make sure the shellfish harvest continues for generations to come.

For more information about WSDA’s Aquaculture Coordinator activities contact: Laura Butler.