The Shellfish Growers Climate Coalition is working to support shellfish growers in the United States and Canada as they drive climate action and sustain aquatic ecosystems.
In 2018 a group of seven shellfish farmers partnered with The Nature Conservancy to form the Coalition, spurred by concerns over the climate crisis. Today, the group represents more than 270 farmers, harvesters, hatchery operators, wholesalers, and restaurateurs.
The Coalition pushes for change by sharing personal stories about the ways the changing climate has affected the lives and livelihoods of members. They also provide resources to help producers and other advocates call on lawmakers and demand sound climate policy.
Urgent action is needed as extreme weather events, including hurricanes, increase in frequency and threaten to wreak havoc on shellfish farms. Even when a farm is spared from the worst of a storm, producers may still suffer, explains Sally McGee, Project Manager for the Shellfish Climate Coalition.
Typically, shellfish cages float on the water’s surface, but when a storm is predicted to move through the region, farmers face a difficult decision. “Either they cross their fingers and hope the storm will miss them, or they’ll have to take everything out of the water or sink their entire farm [to avoid damange],” McGee tells Food Tank. The process can result in “a long time when they’re not selling oysters.”
But farmers don’t have to wait for hurricane season to see the repercussions of the climate crisis. And while it affects producers differently depending on their region, the changing climate leaves nobody untouched.
In the Gulf of Maine, for example, farmers are noticing that the increasingly acidic waters are making animals’ shells brittle. And in Mobile Bay, an estuary in Alabama, the salinity is so low that farmers are losing their entire crops. Producers are also experiencing changes to water and air temperatures along with an increasing frequency of harmful algal blooms that prevent them from harvesting.
“All these things are happening as a result of climate change,” McGee tells Food Tank “And the farmers see it every day.”
Declining shellfish populations represents a blow to aquatic ecosystems. As filter feeders, oysters improve water quality. Oyster reefs also provide wildlife habitats and protect against erosion along waterfront areas. “That oyster reef is going to provide a buffer and reduce the wave energy that comes to shore, so they do a lot,” McGee says. Shellfish, and oysters in particular, are “total powerhouses.”
Listen to the full conversation with Sally McGee on “Food Talk with Dani Nierenberg” to hear more about the ecological importance of shellfish, why the Shellfish Growers Climate Coalition uses storytelling to drive change, and how the Nature Conservancy’s Supporting Oyster Aquaculture and Restoration (SOAR) Program is building resilience.
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Photo courtesy of John Angel, Unsplash