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Southern Oyster Growers Feeling Impacts of Climate Change

Oyster growers say the delicate environment that shellfish need to thrive is being disrupted by climate change. (Adobe Stock)
Oyster growers say the delicate environment that shellfish need to thrive is being disrupted by climate change. (Adobe Stock)
February 25, 2020

WILMINGTON, N.C. -- Oyster farmers are grappling with rising seas, ocean acidification, and more severe storms. They met in Wilmington over the weekend to discuss how to address these growing challenges.

One of the goals at the Oyster South Symposium was to brainstorm ways to deal with the impacts of climate change. Andy DePaola is a small-scale oyster farmer in Mobile Bay, Alabama. He said more frequent, heavy rains are flushing pathogens and fertilizer into waterways flowing into the bay, contaminating oyster habitat.

"Right now, we're closed on bacterial counts. And last year, I was only open about one week between the beginning of the year and say, May," DePaola said. "So, it's very hard, you know, to maintain an operation for your cash flow and everything when you're closed for months at a time. It's really challenging."

DePaola said in the previous century, Alabama's coast once produced an abundant oyster supply, but numbers have steadily dwindled since the 1990s. The newly formed Shellfish Growers Climate Coalition, made up of oyster farmers across the country, has called on Congress to take action to address climate change.

Changing ocean chemistry caused by warming water is a major factor disrupting shellfish populations. DePaola pointed out that oceans suck up a huge amount of carbon, which is converted into an acid. He said increasing acidity from carbon emissions will negatively affect other types of aquaculture as well.

"Ocean acidification is going to be even a bigger problem," he said. "Because the creatures that form shells, not just oysters, but your shrimp and crabs, even your diatoms - which are the base of the food web, support everything up the food web, including human beings - once that fails, I don't know how we can fix this."

The United States is among the top oyster-producing nations, along with France, Japan and South Korea.

Nadia Ramlagan, Public News Service - NC