Raking in the Profits

Peter Becker
Peter Becker of Little Skookum Shellfish Growers says the U.S. lags the rest of the world in fish farming.

With the ocean at our back door, it’s hard to imagine anything but a bounty of seafood. From wild salmon to local oysters and steelhead, residents of the Pacific Northwest have a wealth of options when it comes to fresh fish and shellfish.

Yet much of the seafood that makes its way to restaurant tables doesn’t come from the nearby ocean. In fact, the United States imports approximately 84 percent of its seafood by value. Of that, half is farmed, rather than caught wild, and the numbers are growing all the time.

Aquaculture, the practice of breeding and raising species in a controlled aquatic environment, is the fastest-growing method of food production worldwide. But in the Northwest, the industry has often been hampered by concerns for water quality, restoration efforts and views. Waterfront property owners often protest that seafood beds disrupt their view, and many environmentalists are fiercely opposed to fish farming because they say the waste produced by carnivorous fish (such as salmon) can negatively affect marine habitats.

Yet smart fish farming has enormous potential, not only to provide jobs and stimulate the local economy, but also to aid in cleaning up Puget Sound and the surrounding waterways.

For such a large consumer, we are lagging far behind in aquaculture development. Domestic aquaculture makes up only 5 percent of our seafood supply, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the leading federal agency on marine aquaculture regulation and policy. The industry produces approximately $1 billion annually, compared to $70 billion worldwide. Our annual seafood trade deficit exceeds $9 billion.

Washington state is already the largest producer of farmed shellfish in the United States, and aquaculture has a long legacy here. “We’re pioneers in producing farmed fish,” says Peter Becker, CEO of Little Skookum Shellfish Growers in Shelton. But compared to other countries? “We’re way down the scale.”

Taylor Shellfish, with its headquarters in Shelton, has been family-owned and operated for more than 100 years. Bill Dewey, Taylor’s spokesman, explains that although the recession hasn’t taken too much of a toll on the industry, imports compete heavily with the company’s locally grown Manila clams. Frozen clams shipped in from China sell at less than half the price, and Taylor’s sales are down 35 percent. Dewey believes that most American consumers are unaware of how much seafood is imported.

Experts know that our trend toward high imports and low production cannot continue. Michael Rubino, manager of NOAA’s Aquaculture Program, says demand for seafood is expected to increase, along with prices, as the world population rapidly approaches a projected 9 billion people by 2040. Many wild fisheries have been depleted to the point of collapse from overfishing, and those that remain are only sustainable at their current levels. Aquaculture is the only way to continue supplying seafood without wiping out our dwindling population of wild species.

Boats at Little Skookum
Little Skookum Shellfish Growers still harvests clams the old-fashioned way: with rakes.

“We need to use our ingenuity to grow aquaculture in an environmentally sensitive way,” Rubino says. Becker puts it more bluntly. “It’s this or Soylent Green,” he says, citing the 1973 science fiction film in which citizens resorted to cannibalism in the face of overpopulation and depleted resources.

In the Puget Sound region, meeting future demand means farming more shellfish. Farmed oysters, clams, mussels and geoducks contribute approximately $100 million annually to the local economy. The benefit of shellfish farming, as opposed to finfish like trout and salmon, is that shellfish, when managed properly, can be major contributors to improving habitat and water quality.

“There’s a close link between commercial shellfish production and shellfish restoration,” says Rubino. “Combined, the two approaches could make a significant contribution to restoring water quality in coastal waters.”

Morgan Rohrbach, project manager at the Puget Sound Restoration Fund, explains that a dozen oysters grown on a shellfish farm can filter out 0.87 pounds of carbon and 6 to 12 grams of nitrogen from the water per day. Scientists believe that nitrogen is a major contributor to climate change, on par with carbon dioxide. Humans have a nitrogen footprint of approximately 10 grams of nitrogen a day and, according to research in the journal Science, nitrogen pollution from agricultural runoff and burning of fossil fuels has increased the environmental load of nitrogen by 50 percent above the normal range.

Shellfish can also absorb other toxins, making water quality a limiting factor in producing shellfish for human consumption. “Shellfish are what they eat. They’re filter feeders, and if the water is polluted, we get shut down,” says Dewey. This means most shellfish farmers are on the front lines when it comes to cleaning up the waters of Puget Sound, since a healthy ocean is integral to their business. In the wake of increased funding for ocean cleanup from both state and federal governments, the future looks bright. “I’m as optimistic as I’ve ever been that we can make some progress,” says Dewey, a veteran of the Puget Sound Water Quality Committee.

Where water isn’t clean enough to grow shellfish for human consumption, they can still be put to use. Becker is enthusiastic about the possibilities. As chair of the Pacific Aquaculture Caucus, he’s helping to host a conference in September on integrated multitrophic aquaculture—the practice of using shellfish, algae and even sea slugs to filter waste from farmed salmon and other fish. In some cases, those shellfish can then be used for livestock feed. The algae and seaweed would fill a huge production gap—we currently import algae to the tune of 80,000 metric tons a year for use in cosmetics, paint and hundreds of other products.

“We’re missing the boat on energy recovery,” Becker notes. Need an example? Look to Sweden, he explains, where shellfish and algae are used to clean effluent from sewage treatment plants.

RakeSo what is the key to unlocking the Northwest’s production potential? “People need to get hungry,” Dewey says. He believes that public acceptance of aquaculture—and its willingness to see fish and shellfish farms in the shallows—would rise if people came to connect their love for fresh, local mussels to the development and maintenance of clean oceans. In other countries, “it’s more a part of the landscape,” says Dewey, “because they rely on it for food.”

Becker echoes that sentiment. “Public acceptance [for aquaculture] is very low,” he says. It seems there’s an element of denial in our fish-loving habits. We want fresh, local mussels, but we don’t want their growth to mar a pristine ocean vista.

The permitting process for farmers can also be difficult. Rohrbach explains that permitting for the Restoration Fund’s small (less than one-fourth of an acre) community shellfish farm on Bainbridge Island took 14 months and $8,000—a prohibitive cost for a nonprofit with plenty of projects to support. Rubino agrees that it’s a complicated system. He says there have been efforts to establish pre-permitted zones and to streamline the process, but it’s still a difficult endeavor, since farmers must navigate local, state and federal regulations.

Like any crop, oyster production fluctuates around many environmental factors, which are difficult to predict. A recent study released by scientists at NOAA and the University of Washington shows that Puget Sound is becoming more acidic due to emissions from vehicles and industrial smokestacks. For the past several years, crops of young oysters at a number of nurseries have been dying before they reach adulthood. Scientists believe that the acidity could be dissolving the shells of larval oysters before they can mature enough to withstand the less-than-ideal water conditions. Other factors, such as cold water temperatures and low oxygen content, may also be at fault. The shortage of young oysters is limiting the ability of local producers to respond to the demand from the Gulf, where the recent oil spill put the shellfish industry out of commission.

The Northwest certainly has room for more shellfish. Rohrbach says that the current core beds of oysters are estimated at only 4 percent of what was once here. With careful development, salmon and cod could also be success stories. Becker bemoans our tendency to export useful knowledge to other countries, most of which now far outstrip the United States in efficiency and sustainability. He can list off a roll call of innovators from the ’50s and ’60s who either left the industry or took their strategies somewhere else. Now, he says, we need to work with the rest of the world to upgrade our approach, and do it soon. “If we don’t start now, it’s never going to happen.”

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