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Guest Column: Washington’s Shellfish Farms Are the Heart of Rural Economies

  • Written by Danielle Blacklock, Director, NOAA’s Office of Aquaculture

When most Americans think of a farming state they probably picture the cornfields of Iowa or California’s Central Valley. Washington might not rank high on their list. As the Director for NOAA’s Office of Aquaculture, I know the importance of farming in Washington. Shellfish farming to be exact.

Shellfish harvest and farming is tradition in the Pacific Northwest. Tribes have harvested shellfish for generations, feeding their communities from Puget Sound and coastal shores. Washington’s seafood farms as we know them today date back to the mid-1800s, three decades before the state even entered the Union.

Today, shellfish farming is a foundation for rural Washington economies. According to the latest aquaculture statistics these farms produced over 10 million pounds of shellfish worth nearly $100 million in 2017. This production is not only important for the regional economy, but it is also a critical link in our nation’s food security.

Why is Washington’s shellfish industry successful? I can sum it up best with one word, connection. Shellfish farmers are connected to healthy ecosystems, their daily lives are driven by marine stewardship and their products provide many benefits to the environment, including improving water quality. A single adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day.

Shellfish farmers are also connected to their communities. Last year Washington shellfish growers, directly and indirectly, employed thousands of people. These jobs include hatchery technicians, farm workers, distribution, delivery, divers, and even your favorite raw bar shucker. They also connect us to our food and the region’s tradition of enjoying shellfish. These shellfish farms give us a healthy and sustainable product that carries the farms unique flavor to our plates.

Farmers and policymakers, whether on land or water, know that food production is not without challenges. Barriers that are often out of their control, including extreme or unpredictable weather conditions, ocean acidification, changing water conditions, trade roadblocks, and increasingly the impacts of COVID-19.

I know many of these risks, I studied them. As a graduate student at the University of Washington, I focused my research on shellfish growers’ perception of risk. In many ways growers were ahead of their time with concerns about water quality, climate change and shifting markets making them sentinels for a changing environment. No one, however, saw anything like COVID-19 coming.

With restaurants closed to dine-in services shellfish farmers have lost their connection to the majority of their customers. While no one knows when restaurants will reopen to dine-in customers or when market demand will increase, I am certain that aquaculture growers are some of the most resilient among us. They wake up early, work long hours, and battle through storms and summer heat to provide our communities with that connection to sustainable and healthy seafood.

Taylor Shellfish  NOAA photo

We continue to hear stories of the sacrifices growers are making and the support they are providing in their communities, including taking pay cuts to keep staff employed, Sea Grant extension agents helping producers with direct to consumer marketing, and aquaculture product donations helping to feed hundreds of families in need. It is these actions that show just how essential aquaculture growers are.

The importance of local and reliable food sources has never been more evident, but shellfish aquaculture is so much more than just food production. These farms provide vital opportunities in rural economies, ecosystem services, and can improve access to seafood benefiting community health. Seafood farmers are the heart of rural communities.

- Danielle Blacklock directs NOAA Fisheries Office of Aquaculture