In Washington, farming, particularly shellfish, is not only tied to the state’s economy but also to the history and culture. Since time immemorial, the peoples who inhabited Puget Sound have depended on the fruits of the sea for the sustenance of their families. And for more than 160 years oysters, clams and mussels have been an important part of the state’s business activity.
With 3,200 miles of coastline and 50,000 miles of rivers, Washington is today the largest producer of farm-raised seafood in the US. The state contributes to 25% of the nation’s production with a combined value of over $180 million per year. Additionally, the more than 300 farms in Washington indirectly generate nearly 3,200 jobs.
An example of this activity is Rivera Shellfish, a family business that operates in the outskirts of Shelton, a town located at the southern end of Puget Sound. The relative tranquility of this town, surrounded by dense forests of various fir and pine species, is frequently interrupted by the passage of heavy trucks loaded with wood.
A short distance from the sawmill of Sierra Pacific Industries, the second-largest logging company in the United States, is the ideal place to grow shellfish. In this basin made up of several inlets, seawater mixes with freshwater from several rivers from the mountains. This combination, connoisseurs say, is what gives a unique, almost sweet flavor to shellfish – especially oysters. In addition, several islands increase the available coastline for breeding plots.
Noe Rivera working with oyster nets in Puget Sound
For growers, it is hard work that requires great physical effort, exposure to the elements regardless of the season, and close monitoring of the tides to arrive at the opportune time to maintain the distributed cultivation plots that they lease from homeowners along the inlets and around the islands.
Noé and Efraín Rivera are two of five brothers from the state of Puebla in Mexico who have dedicated themselves for more than 20 years to raising and marketing shellfish in the south of the Puget Strait.
Noé Rivera was one of the first Hispanics to establish an aquaculture farm, Rivera Shellfish, dedicated to raising oysters and clams for more than a decade. His love for oysters began by chance.
Rivera’s Shellfish LLC (Left) brothers Noe Rivera and Efraín Rivera (Right)
“A brother worked in a company and brought the oysters home with a “carnita asada” and an oyster. And since I liked them, it caught my attention. Then my brother invited me to work with him. And I don’t know, I liked the cultivation, how an oyster was grown,” says Rivera.
His brother Efraín has taken over the business, “I love this type of work. I like it very much. I like walking on the beach, and I really like the wind and the breeze off the water. So I enjoy it, and that’s why I think we’re here.”
Over the years, the Rivera brothers have been closely acquainted with the negative challenges that oyster farming has experienced, which they attribute to the perils of the business, global warming, and environmental pollution. Rising temperatures and the changing chemical composition of the sea pose a threat to Puget Sound shellfish, and the community that depends on the industry. The decrease in the quantity and quality of the harvest could also negatively affect companies that rely on this commercial activity, such as supermarkets, restaurants, hotels, and other businesses related to tourism.
Efraín Rivera speaking about the impact of climate on the oyster production in Puget Sound
One of the most harmful changes for all the beings that inhabit the waters of Puget Sound, especially mollusks, is the increase in the acidity levels of the sea. This phenomenon occurs by the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide absorbed by the ocean (caused by gases emitted by vehicles and factories). This lowers the pH of the water through an increase in hydrogen ions and a subsequent decrease in carbonate ions. Carbonate ions are essential for the calcification process, allowing many organisms to develop their shells. As these molecules grow more scarce, organisms do not complete their maturation cycle and die. In Puget Sound, more than 30% of marine species depend on this process, such as crabs, sea urchins, starfish, mussels, oysters, and clams.
The alternatingly gradual or drastic increase in water temperature also harms the marine ecosystems of the strait. For example, heat enhances the proliferation of algae that excrete lethal biotoxins for beings that inhabit the ocean. In addition, each marine organism requires a specific temperature range for its normal development. When this exceeds natural variability, metabolism changes, organisms weaken, and, after prolonged exposure, they die. Mollusks, especially oysters and clams, are sensitive to temperature. That is why summer is a crucial time for growers.
“If we are already in May, June… Normally one worries because that could be the main reason why a lot of oyster production is dying. And one is trying to cultivate as deep as possible so that the product stays in the water. So that is why they do not die so much, and it also helps growth, because there is more food for the shellfish,” explains Noé Rivera.
Since mid-2019, the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (WFWD) has received reports of mass deaths of oysters in aquaculture farms. The division affirms that the increase in water temperature and the environment would be among the causes, especially when the rise coincides with low tide, exposing the oysters to direct sunlight. For fish farmers like Noé Rivera, the change has been evident.
Noe Rivera with dead oysters in south Puget Sound
“Ten years ago… seafood was dying, but the percentage was not too high compared to the percentage that is dying today. They don’t know the reason,” Rivera says, adding that growers previously expected a 20 to 30 percent crop loss, but have been faced with over half dying in the last three years.
The heatwave that punished the Pacific Northwest with temperatures of more than 110º between June 23 and 28 of 2021, had consequences for oyster farms in Puget Sound. The extreme temperatures coincided with a shallow tide at noon, exposing the oysters. Undoubtedly, the phenomenon was an event rarely seen in the state’s history. Its impact was such that, to date, the authorities have not been able to calculate its ecological and economic impact.
At the southern end of Puget Sound, most fish farmers use mesh bags for growing oysters. It is an arduous, laborious and lengthy process. They first buy the seed (or larva that has started to develop its shell) from specialized farms. The cost varies depending on the size, but according to Rivera, a million quarter-inch to half-inch seed oysters run up to $60,000. This seed is deposited in bags that are anchored near low tide levels. As the mollusks grow, they are moved into larger bags, and when they reach a larger size, they are removed from the bags and distributed a short distance from the beach. After a year or a little more, the oysters reach maturity and the optimal size for harvesting and sale.
Noe Rivera removing the oyster nets to shore to assess the state of production
The 2021 heat waves’ disruption of this long process had disastrous results for Puget Sound farms. In less than a week, the fruit of the months and even years of labor and investment was destroyed.
The devastation of aquaculture crops was very painful for farmers in the south of the strait, as Efraín Rivera explains; “It was too much because one day you come and see everything alive and the next day you come and see everything… Well, more than half of them are open, that is, everything is already cooked. So yes, last year was already rough for the oyster, clam, and mussels producers. It was, it was kind of hard.”
But the effects have continued, since the death of the adult specimens prevented the spawning phase, interrupting the reproductive cycle. The sale of local oyster seeding, on which Puget Sound growers depend, may take two to five years.
Although not all farms suffered the same impact from the heatwave, both the scientific community and those who depend on this commercial activity fear that the consequences of the meteorological event will be felt in the area for several years.
Noe Rivera organizing the oysters for sale at Rivera’s Shellfish
The Rivera brothers share their concern for the future of the family business: “In recent years, the percentage of oysters dying is too high, so one has to think about whether to invest; one thinks about it,” says Noé Rivera.
His brother Efraín acknowledges the growing uncertainty: “Right now all of us, most of us put in a lot of work, economic investment, and everything, but we don’t know the weather right now in the summer, how it will be. So if it doesn’t get so hot, well, maybe we have hope that things will go well for us, but if a very strong summer comes, it’s a risk for producers of all kinds of seafood.