Hurricanes, Water Wars Threaten New High-End Oyster Industry on Gulf Coast
By Daniel R. Petrolia and William C. Walton
For Cainnon Gregg, 2018 started out as a great year. After leaving his job as an installation artist to become a full-time oyster farmer in Wakulla County, Florida in 2017, Gregg began raising small oysters in baskets or bags suspended in the shallow, productive coastal waters of Apalachicola Bay.
Raising oysters "off-bottom" this way takes a lot of time and money, but has a big potential payoff. They are destined for the high-end raw bar market, where offerings are denoted by specific appellations, like "Salty Birds" (Cainnon's oysters), "Navy Coves" (from Alabama) and "Murder Points" (also from Alabama), and can retail for twice the price of oysters harvested from traditional on-bottom reefs.
When Hurricane Michael made landfall at Mexico Beach, Florida, on Oct. 10, it dealt a devastating blow to this nascent industry. Preliminary reports indicate significant damage and heavy crop losses. Raising oysters by any method is not an easy job, but if off-bottom farming can become established along the Gulf Coast, it could give the industry a much-needed boost, give consumers more choices, and provide a new stream of environmental benefits.
The U.S. produces multiple species of oysters, but historically the eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica) has accounted for over 70 percent of total harvests. The Gulf Coast generally accounts for 80 percent of those, with production generating $1 billion in annual revenues.
Louisiana is the national leader in oyster production, with a handful of other states vying for second place, including Washington, South Carolina and Texas. However, when states are ranked by value per unit—that is, total value over total landings—states like Massachusetts, Maryland and Virginia dominate.
This is partly due to regional differences in how oysters are grown and marketed. Traditional harvesting of oyster reefs on the sea bottom still dominates in the Gulf region. These oysters are generally sold as a commodity, appearing on menus as simply "oysters" or "Gulf Coast oysters."
Elsewhere, most oysters come from off-bottom farming and tend to be marketed under the names of specific reefs, growers or appellations. Off-bottom oyster farming has been a major driver in the growth of marine aquaculture production nationally.
Oysters are grown in cages at Island Creek Oyster Farm in Duxbury, MA.MA Office of Travel and Tourism / Hanks, CC BY-ND
The Gulf's first commercial off-bottom farms started up in Alabama and Louisiana in 2010. Today more than 50 farms are operating in Florida, Alabama and Louisiana, with permits pending for others in Mississippi. Harvest data are limited, but in Alabama alone, eleven farms collectively reported nearly $2 million in sales in 2016. In recent years Alabama has ranked among the top five states in per-unit value.
Reasons to Diversify
Raising off-bottom oysters is good for more than oystermen's bottom lines. Oysters improve water clarity by filtering out phytoplankton, thereby removing nitrogen from the water column. They also provide forage grounds and habitat for fish and act as breakwaters, protecting nearby shorelines.
Off-bottom farms deliver the same types of benefits as traditional on-bottom reefs, although in slightly different ways and at different times, depending on local conditions and farming methods. In our view, raising oysters in multiple ways is beneficial because it avoids putting all of our eggs in one basket, so to speak, and makes the industry more resilient.
We come at this topic from different perspectives. Daniel Petrolia focuses on the economics of coastal resources and natural hazards. William Walton directs Auburn University's Marine Invertebrate Fisheries, Restoration and Aquaculture Lab. We have worked together since 2011 to better understand oyster habitats, evaluate market opportunities and identify and tackle challenges for the new industry. Disaster preparation and recovery clearly are top priorities.
We see off-bottom oyster farming as especially interesting economically, given its novelty on the Gulf Coast, the new market opportunities it affords growers and the diversity it brings to the Gulf Coast's oyster habitat "portfolio." It also offers new choices for people who like to eat Gulf Coast oysters.
Panacea Oyster Co-op overview youtu.be
Natural and Man-Made Disasters
Hurricanes and storms pose serious threats to the Gulf oyster industry. They can harm reefs by burying them in sediments or drastically altering water salinity.
Storm impacts tend to be highly localized. Prior to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Mississippi was the fourth-largest oyster-producing state in the nation. Katrina slashed the state's output by 80 percent that year, and fishermen were unable to harvest oysters at all in 2006. Production recovered somewhat over the next several years, but Mississippi harvests have remained around one-tenth of pre-Katrina levels.
Louisiana, whose oyster reefs lie just west of where Katrina made landfall, saw just a 6 percent drop in production following Katrina. The impacts of the Deepwater Horizon disaster were shorter-lived, but Louisiana's 2010 harvest was cut in half due to precautionary closures during and after the spill. Oysters were also killed by releases of fresh water from the Mississippi River, which were conducted in an effort to keep oil out of coastal estuaries.
Storms are not the only threat. Florida and Georgia have been fighting for decades over allocating water from the Apalachicola River; when Georgia draws a high level of water, it reduces freshwater flow to Apalachicola Bay, which can lead to increases in oyster mortality from predation and disease. And harmful algal blooms, such as Florida's massive 2018 red tide outbreak, can close waters to harvesting.
@SCOTUS ruled on the #Georgia #Florida #WaterWars. Who won? Well, no one really. The case was remanded to the inves… https://t.co/RWwTRZSyuZ— Grant Blankenship (@Grant Blankenship)1530114847.0
Beyond direct impacts on oyster farms, Hurricane Michael damaged state laboratories that conduct water quality testing required to re-open waters to harvesting. Testing delays could lead to prolonged closures and even affect areas not hit by the storm. Michael also disrupted red tide sampling in several Panhandle counties. In Gulf and Escambia counties, red tide concentrations actually increased in late October.
Farmers will be looking for more oyster seed—the small oysters that they need to restock their bags and baskets. This could drive up demand and strain the industry's capacity. Unlike crop farmers on land, oyster farmers cannot buy subsidized insurance to help them with losses of oysters and gear, so those who suffered heavy damage will be challenged to rebuild their operations.
Hurricane Michael failed to break up the red tide outbreak along Florida's west coast. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Not an Easy Business
As we write, oyster farmers in the Panhandle are still inspecting their farms for damage and seeing how their oysters fared. Some estimate that they may have lost 60 to 90 percent of their crops.
Oystermen have strategies for dealing with hurricanes, such as sinking baskets loaded with oysters to the bottom before the storm arrives. But they can only reduce risk, not eliminate it. The threat of rising sea levels and more intense storms will force them to continue adapting and improving their strategies.
Earlier this year, Cainnon Gregg started selling "Salty Birds" to some of the finest oyster bars in the South. Two days after Hurricane Michael passed through, he was back on the water checking lines and making repairs. "There's nothing easy about any of this, and all you can do is get back out here and get back to work," he said. He could have been speaking for all Gulf oystermen.
#Louisiana Faces Faster Levels of Sea-Level Rise Than Any Other Land on Earth https://t.co/zCuAWpcH7U @NRDC @RobertKennedyJr @Waterkeeper— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1483558863.0
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
- Long Island Brewer Launches 'Good Reef Ale' to Help Restore New ... ›
- Extreme Weather Threatens Wild Gulf Coast Oysters - EcoWatch ›
New fossils uncovered in Argentina may belong to one of the largest animals to have walked on Earth.
- Groundbreaking Fossil Shows Prehistoric 15-Foot Reptile Tried to ... ›
- Skull of Smallest Known Dinosaur Found in 99-Million-Year Old Amber ›
- Giant 'Toothed' Birds Flew Over Antarctica 40 Million Years Ago ... ›
- World's Second-Largest Egg Found in Antarctica Probably Hatched ... ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
- Pruitt Guts the Clean Power Plan: How Weak Will the New EPA ... ›
- It's Official: Trump Administration to Repeal Clean Power Plan ... ›
- 'Deadly' Clean Power Plan Replacement ›
By Jonathan Runstadler and Kaitlin Sawatzki
Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers have found coronavirus infections in pet cats and dogs and in multiple zoo animals, including big cats and gorillas. These infections have even happened when staff were using personal protective equipment.
- Gorillas in San Diego Test Positive for Coronavirus - EcoWatch ›
- Wildlife Rehabilitators Are Overwhelmed During the Pandemic. In ... ›
- Coronavirus Pandemic Linked to Destruction of Wildlife and World's ... ›
- Utah Mink Becomes First Wild Animal to Test Positive for Coronavirus ›
By Peter Giger
The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
By John R. Platt
The period of the 45th presidency will go down as dark days for the United States — not just for the violent insurgency and impeachment that capped off Donald Trump's four years in office, but for every regressive action that came before.
- Biden Announces $2 Trillion Climate and Green Recovery Plan ... ›
- How Biden and Kerry Can Rebuild America's Climate Leadership ... ›
- Biden's EPA Pick Michael Regan Urged to Address Environmental ... ›
- How Joe Biden's Climate Plan Compares to the Green New Deal ... ›