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Clam, Oyster, and Mussel Farming by Mark Scheuerell

Shellfish are central to Washington State’s culture, marine ecosystems, and coastal economies. Washington is the nation’s leading producer of farmed clams, oysters, and mussels, contributing approximately $184 million to the State economy, supporting over 1,900 jobs, and supplying fresh shellfish to consumers around the globe.

With such high cultural, economic, and ecological value, there is substantial demand for growth within the shellfish aquaculture industry. A key impediment to the sustainable expansion of shellfish aquaculture is understanding the ecological implications of converting nearshore habitat to shellfish production. Understanding how shellfish aquaculture functions as nearshore habitat, relative to uncultivated areas, will help resource managers overcome this barrier and assess potential tradeoffs when planning the sustainable expansion of shellfish aquaculture.

Aquaculture water use in 2015
Aquaculture water use in 2015

Ecological functions of nearshore habitats, including shellfish aquaculture habitats, are challenging to quantify. Underwater video is helping researchers address these questions. In collaboration with shellfish growers, we have used underwater cameras to document nearshore fish (including outmigrating salmonids) and crabs (e.g., Dungeness crabs), and in both shellfish aquaculture and uncultivated nearshore habitats. We have collected hundreds of hours of video from 10 shellfish farm locations around Puget Sound, WA. Subsets of these video data were processed manually to address questions of aquaculture habitat use. Similar video research is being conducted on aquaculture farms on the U.S. east coast (NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center-Milford Lab). This underwater video footage contains valuable information beyond what species are present.

Pacific Herring bait ball
Underwater image of Pacific herring bait ball in Puget Sound. Herring swim in schools for protection.

To evaluate the ecological functions of fish and crab habitats more broadly, we must examine relationships between nearshore benthic habitats and species’ responses including behavior and diets. Thus, two key knowledge gaps regarding the consequences of shellfish farming within the nearshore ecosystem are (1) the behavioral responses of fish and crabs to shellfish farming relative to natural benthic seascapes and (2) the trophic ecology of fish and crab species that forage in these habitats.

This knowledge could inform managers considering ecological consequences of decisions to introduce or expand shellfish aquaculture across a diversity of seascapes. Specifically, our study addresses critical NOAA and industry goals by informing on aquaculture practices that maintain native biodiversity and ecosystem function. In the Pacific Northwest, one of the goals of the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association is to use best practices to maintain the ecological function of the system that supports their farms.

european green crab
European green crab captured in Washington. Green crabs are invasive to the region and adversely impact the local shellfish industry by outcompeting native species.