Collaborative Workshop Seeks Healthy Eelgrass and Shellfish Farms

June 2017

Native eelgrass provides valuable habitat for young salmon and other fish and is considered a barometer of healthy tidelands.  Shellfish aquaculture is also valuable, contributing about $200 million annually to Washington’s economy.

When the two overlap, shellfish farmers may find themselves in a bind. Regulatory agencies require them to follow best management practices to safeguard eelgrass, but the conflicting direction from different agencies may make it tough for farmers to keep farming.

rows of aquaculture in watered field

Well-spaced oyster longlines allow eelgrass to flourish in between them in Washington's Samish Bay. Photo: Laura Hoberecht/NOAA Fisheries

About 100 shellfish growers, scientists, and agency and tribal representatives attended a workshop at NOAA Fisheries in Seattle in mid-April to work towards eelgrass management practices that are not only consistent, but also based on sound science and practical for shellfish growers.

“In Puget Sound we have a very rich history of relying on these shorelines to produce food for orcas as well as supporting aquaculture that helps feed people too,” said Scott Redman of the Puget Sound Partnership, which promotes the environmental recovery of Puget Sound. “The workshop helped show that it’s not either-or. If we manage things wisely, we can have both.”

shellfish beds stretched out to a horizon line

Oysters flourish amid eelgrass in Willapa Bay. Photo: Laura Hoberecht/NOAA Fisheries

Many of those who attended said the workshop helped build relationships between shellfish growers and regulators, and promoted information sharing. They also said the discussion helped demonstrate that, with proper management, shellfish farms can coexist with healthy eelgrass beds.

clump of shellfish intertwined with eelgrass

A cluster of bottom-cultured oysters grows in eelgrass in Willapa Bay. Photo: Laura Hoberecht/NOAA Fisheries

Eelgrass reflects the health of the shoreline ecosystem, serving as a nursery for juvenile salmon, producing insects that feed fish, and supporting water quality. Shellfish farms provide similar ecosystem benefits. The workshop aimed to highlight the benefits of both, as well as improve dialogue between the shellfish aquaculture industry and those working to protect and restore eelgrass.

“The workshop proved the value of bringing everyone together in one room,” said Bill Dewey of Taylor Shellfish Farms, who has farmed shellfish amid healthy eelgrass beds for decades. He said that the aquaculture community wants to ensure that regulations to protect eelgrass beds are informed by science.

“We want informed decisions on these policies,” he said. “The two do coexist very well together and I think the workshop helped open some people’s eyes to that.”

He described eelgrass and shellfish beds as “crazy vibrant places full of life.” Besides Taylor Shellfish Farms, Dewey owns 32 acres where he farms shellfish on his own. He noted that only six or seven of those acres do not have eelgrass.

“My ability to use those acres for shellfish farming is directly affected by this issue, so I appreciate the opportunity to be involved in the conversation,” said Dewey.

Laura Hoberecht, NOAA Fisheries’ regional aquaculture coordinator, said that the workshop helped regulators understand the state of science around interactions between eelgrass and shellfish aquaculture, and the varying demands imposed on farmers. She noted that some farms have been raising shellfish in areas with eelgrass beds for more than a hundred years, while current rules prevent new farms from working in eelgrass.

“Our goal was to bring together the many entities involved in this issue to have an open conversation,” said Hoberecht, who organized the workshop. “This workshop really showed the importance of including industry in regulatory discussions so you have a better chance that the decisions being made will be beneficial for the environment and practical for the business that is affected.”

Homepage photo: a cluster of bottom-cultured oysters grows in eelgrass in Willapa Bay. Photo: Laura Hoberecht/NOAA Fisheries