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Ocean acidification deals blow to Pacific Northwest oyster industry

Oysters on the half-shell may soon disappear.
Oysters on the half-shell may soon disappear.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

“The world is my oyster” is an expression that imparts optimism and success, but the shellfish industry has been hit hard in recent years by ocean acidification caused by warmer water temperatures that alters the pH balance.

Marine biologists know that oceans have become 30 percent more acidic in the past 250 years from the start of the industrial revolution, rising most notably in recent decades.

As a result, many farmers, who have been raising oysters for generations are facing a dire future.

Climate change has increased temperatures in ocean waters as more carbon dioxide (CO2) is absorbed, which dissolves and forms carbolic acid. Some of the most vulnerable marine creatures to acid buildup are shellfish, because it impedes development of calcium, causing shells to be thinner.

Think of it in terms of the human condition known as osteoporosis, which causes bones to become brittle and more fragile.

The impairment in shell development impacts marine life from the smallest pteropods in the food chain to crabs, lobsters and oysters. The ramifications are far reaching across aquatic ecosystems and the economic impacts on commercial fisheries will be staggering.

Washington state faces a major threat to its $270 million Pacific Northwest Shellfish industry.

Regarding the health of Pacific oceans, Gov. Jay Inslee linked oysters to the proverbial canary in the coal mine and said, “Now it’s the oyster in the half shell. You can’t overstate what this means to Washington.”

Oysters are grown from larvae and this year billions of baby oyster are dying throughout Pacific inlets.

Inslee, who is widely accepted as one of the most environmentally responsible governors in the nation, hopes to use the disastrous results of ocean acidification in the fight against climate change, because he knows energy technology will be a jobs-generator.

“This is a scientifically literate state,” Mr. Inslee said, since Washington is home to Microsoft and Boeing, so denial of climate change is a bad political stance for any politician.

In 2012, The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration developed ways to mitigate the problem for farmers with the use of sensitive monitoring instruments that could predict when the water quality was most conducive to starting production, but shellfish damage from ocean acidification appears to be increasing nonetheless.

Meanwhile, specialists agree that eating raw oysters in any situation is becoming a risky proposition, even if they appear fresh.

Therefore, eating oysters on the half-shell can be hazardous to your health.

Oysters, which are an incredibly nutritious, vitamin packed, low calorie food, should be eaten cooked, experts warn, to avoid food poisoning. They can be sautéed, baked, broiled, steamed or stewed, but eat them raw at your peril.

Perhaps if seafood connoisseurs risk losing oyster bars, along with fresh crab and lobsters, not to mention the jobs to harvest them—taking action to reduce carbon emissions may seem a bit more palatable.

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