Washington State takes lead in promoting sustainable shellfish aquaculture

Fall 2016

Washington State is demonstrating strong support for shellfish aquaculture, providing a model for other states under NOAA Fisheries’ National Shellfish Initiative, program leaders said during a recent meeting of the World Aquaculture Society.

The nationwide initiative began in 2011, with the goal of increasing populations of bivalve shellfish—including oysters, clams, abalone, and mussels—by restoring wild stocks and their habitat, and promoting sustainable commercial production. More than 10 states are now participating, and Washington recently launched a second phase of its Washington Shellfish Initiative.

Cultchless in hands. Photo: Taylor Shellfish.

Washington can point to several success stories. By reducing water pollution, for instance, officials in Washington have reopened almost 2,500 acres of existing shellfish beds to commercial and recreational fishing since 2012.

That’s good news since the value of farmed oyster production in Washington, Oregon, and California has doubled in the last 15 years, hitting a record high of almost $63 million in 2014, the last year with data available. Production on the U.S. West Coast accounts for one quarter of the $250 million in total U.S. commercial oyster production in 2014. Other wild and farmed shellfish including mussels, clams, scallops, and abalone contribute to an annual multi-billion dollar commercial fishing industry nationwide.

Armed with this economic data, NOAA Fisheries is appealing to state leaders to promote shellfish production and plan for future expansion in the face of environmental challenges.

“With impacts of climate change looming, demand for seafood growing, and continued habitat loss—the time is now to have an integrated approach for addressing all of these needs. This is what leaders in Washington are doing,” said Michael Rubino, Director for NOAA Fisheries’ Office of Aquaculture.

oyster farm worker

Worker on Deep Water Point raft. Photo: Taylor Shellfish

The Washington Shellfish Initiative championed by Governor Jay Inslee engages tribal, state, Federal, and industry leaders, and calls for a renewed commitment to shellfish protection, restoration, and enhancement, as well as to continue educating the public about the importance of shellfish as a resource.

The governor proclaimed June 4 through 11 “Shellfish Week” in Washington. NOAA Fisheries and the Puget Sound Restoration Fund marked the occasion by holding an open house at NOAA Fisheries’ Manchester Research Station, part of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center. The event highlighted research on native shellfish including Olympia oysters, pinto abalone, and sea cucumbers.

Laura Hoberecht, NOAA Fisheries’ Aquaculture Program Coordinator in the Northwest, described Washington’s progress earlier this year at the World Aquaculture Society’s Triennial Meeting in Las Vegas, the world’s largest aquaculture meeting. NOAA Fisheries officials and partners also discussed their work with stakeholders nationwide to develop science and management recommendations that will help ensure long-term sustainability of the shellfish industry.

Many at the meeting agreed that the national initiative has made progress in many states, but still faces challenges. For instance, shellfish restoration and commercial shellfish aquaculture in California and in many other states must navigate complex regulatory permitting challenges. NOAA Fisheries is providing leadership and support through interagency working groups and meetings to develop a more efficient process.

Washington has tackled this issue through a Shellfish Interagency Permitting Team. The team is an interagency working group that helps applicants navigate the permitting process by explaining each step through an easy-to-follow flowchart and narrative. The team also meets with new applicants starting shellfish farms to provide input from all regulatory entities at one time, saving applicants’ time and money.  

 “The Washington Shellfish Initiative has definitely been a model of success for highlighting the importance of shellfish,” said Rubino. “We hope to capitalize on the momentum in Washington by bringing in stakeholders in other states, who see the benefits of shellfish to the environment as well as a sustainable way to feed a growing U.S. population.”

Homepage photo: Taylor Shellfish