Could Ocean Acidification Take Oysters off the Menu and Destroy a Billion Dollar Industry?

Ocean Acidification is killing oyster larvae and threatening the future of the shellfish industry. How will oyster farmers react?

Acidic Reality

Oyster growers on the Pacific west have struggled in recent years to find seed and oysters to keep their businesses viable.  “One morning, we came in and everything was dead,” remarked Alan Barton, a production manager at one West Coast oyster hatcheries [1]. An epidemic ensued, and over the next four years, the region’s supply was reduced by 80%, nearly wiping out the entire industry [2].

Desperate for a remedy, oyster farmers turned to Oregon State University researcher Richard Feely [3] for help.

The culprit? Ocean Acidification.

As carbon dioxide is absorbed by seawater, chemical reactions occur that reduce the pH of the water and dilute the concentration of carbonate ions.


Figure 1: Ocean Acidification Explained [4]
Those hit hardest were calcifiers, such as oysters, which need to extract carbonate ions from the water and use them towards building their hard shells [5]. As acidification overloads the seawater with hydrogen, baby oysters spend too much energy filtering the hydrogen out of their system and not enough on building their shell. The result: two billion dead larvae, thousands of jobs lost, and losses of over $100 million [6].  Taylor Shellfish Farms, (“TSF”) a Washington-based oyster hatchery and farm that sells oysters to fish markets and the public, has reasons to be concerned. Over the past couple of years, ocean acidification has reduced the survival rate of their oyster larvae. It strained relationships with their customers and forced higher capital expenditure spending on a new plant.

Figure 2: (Left) The growth of a healthy oyster larvae in seawater with a pH of 8.2, showing normal size and development during the first 24-72 hours. (Right) Growth of an oyster larvae in seawater with a pH of 8.1, showing stunted growth, undeveloped shell and eventual death. [7]
Supply Chain Distress and Taylor Shellfish Response

TSF’s supply chain has been affected in several ways. Upstream, mother nature, TSF’s supplier, is providing TSF with decreasingly lower quality ocean water with which to grow the larvae. Downstream, farms are counting on TSF to deliver sufficient quantities of viable oysters – and TSF cannot always deliver.

TSF addressed the worsening situation in three key ways. Firstly, TSF built a small hatchery 3,000 miles away in Hawaii in an attempt to produce some viable oyster seed. Secondly,TSF lobbied state politicians and raised state funding [8] to combat the issue of acidification while publicizing the cause. Finally, they implemented three innovations in their supply chain to mitigate the damaging effects of acidification.

  1. Developed equipment that monitors pH and the carbonate chemistry of the water, providing at least few days’ notice when conditions will change
  2. “Buffered” incoming water supply by adding antacids to the water and reducing acidity
  3. Set up equipment that could block out fluctuations of acidic water and change the timing of when they draw in water for their seed

In the medium term, TSF has centralized its strategy around the following initiatives.

  1. Communicate to government the economic damage that could result from ignoring ocean acidification
  2. Continue publicizing effects of ocean acidification
  3. Work together with state legislatures to provide funding for further R&D and monitoring equipment

Recommendations for short and medium-term actions

Although TSF has reduced the death rate of oyster larvae, scientists predict that ocean acidification will continue to increase in the future and adult oysters could soon be affected too. In the short term, TSF might consider aligning closer with the International Ocean Acidification Alliance [9] and tap into their sophisticated monitoring equipment that deciphers seawater chemistry that could provide even more data on seawater composition on an hourly basis on one large database.

In the more medium term, TSF might what to investigate whether there are any types of oysters could thrive in a more acidic environment and selectively breeding that type. TSF could explore alleviating the hostile conditions in the seawater by introducing other micro-organisms that could absorb some of the carbon dioxide from the water where their oysters grow. Lastly, TSF might also want to explore different types of shellfish that could replace oysters on the farms with another type of produce if oysters prove to be too sensitive to the changes in oceanic pH.

With ocean acidity expected to increase by 150% in the next 50 years, there are no easy solutions, and scientists are only just discovering the full effects of these changes. One question one might ask is: In the ecosystem that affects oyster development and growth, are there other organisms that are negatively affected by ocean acidification (i.e. plankton, which is a primary food for oysters?)

Will the short term fixes in equipment be enough to sustain the entire industry, and will the industry be able to change its practices in time to combat the new reality?

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  1. Knudsen, Travis, ‘One morning we came in and everything was dead’: Climate change and Oregon oysters;, accessed: November 2017
  2. Grossman, Elizabeth, “Northwest Oyster Die-offs Show Ocean Acidification has Arrived”, accessed: November 2017
  3. Gattuso, Jean-Pierre, Hansson, L; Ocean Acidification, Oxford University Press, (2011) p33
  4. Petrohilos, D; NDAA, OSU Accessed November 13, 2017
  5. Urban, Ed; European Project on Ocean Acidification, Accessed November 13, 2017
  6. Bergen, Michele “Greenhouse Gas Emission, Ocean Acidification could cost Shellfish industry millions” accessed November 2017
  7. Oregon State University College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences, NFCC, Accessed: November 2017
  8. Zimmer, Carl “An Ominous Warning on the Effects of Ocean Acidification” accessed November 2017
  9. website, homepage accessed November 2017



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Student comments on Could Ocean Acidification Take Oysters off the Menu and Destroy a Billion Dollar Industry?

  1. Matija brings up a good point, if acidity is only projected to continue to increase, TSF’s current fixes will not sustain the industry. His suggestion to attempt to find a type of oyster that can withstand the acidity is a strong one. Eventually adding antacids to the water and other treatments will not be enough. Oysters and other sea life will need to evolve or be breed in a way to withstand the environmental changes.

  2. It’s interesting that I used to have to deal with this stuff in the pool business. Hard water, or water with high calcium content, is known to cause calcium deposits when its pH gets too high. This is why we see some glass cups lose their shine a bit over time, is from these calcium deposits. The same process of developing deposits seems to be what enables shell creation for oysters.

    Regarding the acidification itself, it seems that separated farms have to be the answer moving forward. Removing CO2 or even just adding sodium bicarbonate can help in small doses, but is there anything we can do at a larger scale besides just monitoring and asking for change?

  3. The impact of climate change seems to be the existential question concerning the long-term sustainability of this business and industry. A broader question I have for TSF and competitors is: is it even worthwhile to incur higher capital expenditures and expenses in the near-term to combat this change (through experimentation with new types of oysters, new equipment, etc.), or is it wiser to invest more heavily in geographies that are expected to be more resilient to climate change over the long-term? I think it’s unreasonable to expect the U.S. and other governments to coordinate in a way that will quickly reverse the impact of climate change on water acidity in the next 20 years.

    Consequently, TSF is putting a lot of pressure on technologists and marine biologists to develop mitigants / adaptations to survive, in a short period of time.

    It seems wise for TSF to acquire assets in Hawaii. Why not take the “big bath” now and relocate more of the business to geographies like Hawaii. It will be disruptive in the near-term but will probably maximize shareholder value over the long-term.

  4. After reading this, my thought was similar to one of Reagan’s points in that it seems that the real long-term solution here would be to focus on oyster farms where the water acidity and other factors are controlled. Aside from a long-term change in TSF’s approach to developing its oysters, I would imagine that other geographies will begin to fill the void in oyster production. For instance, states in the Southeastern U.S. have already begun to produce oysters in meaningful quantities, and this is likely to increase over time [1].

    As we’ve seen from other industries experiencing changes in their supply chains due to climate change, it is entirely possible, and perhaps even probable, that the oyster industry will experience fundamental geographic production shifts. It will be interesting to see how and whether companies like TSF are able to respond effectively.


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