Dr. Richard Feely, senior oceanographer at NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory. Photo courtesy of NOAA.
Richard Feely walks through the Pike Place fish market admiring the bounty and diversity of marine treasures on display at the market—rows and rows of mussels, clams, scallops, tuna, and other seafood favorites are piled high on open beds of shaved ice. Shouts of “We fillet for free!” and “Best catch of the year!” punctuate the market hubbub. Every now and then, a market employee in gut-smeared coveralls picks up a rather large fish and, with a loud “Ho!” heaves it over the heads of the moving crowd to another employee. Though many in the crowd cower nervously under the flying fishes, Feely knows better than to worry. In all of his years visiting the market, he has never seen a fish drop in Pike Place.
Seattle has been Feely’s home for more than 35 years. A major seaport and coastal city, Seattle is known for its seafood. Its maritime sector supports more than 22,000 jobs and contributes approximately $2.1 billion to the local economy each year.
Passing through the aisles and picking out his favorite items, Feely pauses to let two men haul a tub of oysters across the aisle. They’re deep in conversation.
“Have you heard what’s happening to the oysters in Willapa Bay?” asks the taller of the two men, wiping his brow with his free hand.
The other man nods knowingly. “Yeah, I’ve heard that the baby oysters start growing, but a lot of them just don’t make it to maturity. Nobody really knows what the problem is.”
The taller man shakes his head sadly. “I hate to think what’ll happen if the problem spreads. Our paychecks depend on oysters, and if they stop producing, a lot of us will be looking for jobs.”
In the wild and in hatcheries, oyster larvae in the Willapa Bay region are dying before they can attach to shells like the one shown at left. Photo courtesy of Jessica Miller, Oregon State University.
Feely frowns as he hears snippets of their conversation. As a senior scientist at NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, in Seattle, WA, he is all too familiar with the problems facing the oyster industry. Pacific oysters haven’t successfully reproduced in the wild since 2004. Usually, baby oysters, or larvae, swim for about two to three weeks until they settle on shells and begin growing. For the last few years though, millions of oyster larvae are dying off before they reach the shells.
Oyster growers are blaming their problems on a strain of bacteria, Vibrio tubiashii, that is deadly to the oyster larvae. Now oyster growers are turning to hatcheries, facilities that provide an artificial environment where the oyster larvae can grow.
At Whiskey Creek Hatchery in Netarts, Oregon, sea water is pumped into vats filled with free swimming oyster larvae, plus algae to feed them. Photo courtesy of Robert Emanuel, Oregon Sea Grant.
Unfortunately, the seawater being pumped into the hatcheries is also now infected with Vibrio tubiashii. Hatcheries are spending thousands of dollars to install water treatment systems to kill the bacteria, but still the larvae are dying. Oyster growers and hatchery managers wonder what is causing the explosive growth of Vibrio tubiashii—the amount of bacteria in the seawater is nearly 100 times above normal.
Feely is anxious to get back to the lab and the mission he began 35 years ago. He’s planning a research cruise that might answer some of the questions about the reduced oyster larvae populations. As he leaves Pike Place, a strong, cool breeze blows through the open marketplace and whips around his shopping bag. It is spring 2007 and the northwesterly winds are arriving.