TIDAL LIFE | Pickled or parboiled, this is going to change the way we eat oysters

Stopping pollution is a good thing, regardless of whether it’s found to be the final cause of dead zones or polar- ice loss.

Reading news online is different from reading it in the paper. There’s no lag time between the story and the rebuttal, or flame war.

I was especially engaged by two news stories I read last week and the comments they received. One story, from the Tacoma News Tribune was entitled “Puget Sound cleanup budget may rise 150 percent.”

Some readers are rolling their eyes at this point, thinking “We already cleaned up back in the ’70s, the Sound is fine,” or “It’s an impossible task,” or “It’s too expensive! These enviro-nuts are going to bankrupt this country.” Ah yes, if only the economy was in this nose- dive because we cleaned up the environment too much.

The other piece, from the Seattle Times, ran under the headline: “Oysters in deep trouble: Is Pacific Ocean’s chemistry killing sea life?”

The idea behind this story was that reproduction rates of coastal oysters are down. Many potential causes were mentioned, including global warming.

Both of these articles have caused their authors to be excoriated in the comment stream and letters to the editor for taking the position that the dire straits the Sound and our oyster beds are in may be our own fault. Some find it more likely that undersea volcanic vents are the cause of sea-life troubles rather than polluted runoff.

Personally, I don’t see that one possible cause of any particular species’ decline precludes all others. Stopping pollution is a good thing, regardless of whether it’s found to be the final cause of dead zones or polar- ice loss.

The oyster story especially caught my attention because of our attempts to grow oysters on our own beach and the trouble we’ve had getting a meal’s worth. In one case, the depletion of our oyster bed was clearly human-caused.

Early one morning my husband, Tom, looked out at the beach and saw two women scooping our oysters into a sheet that they carried between them. Though “au natural,” he ran out on the deck and yelled at them that those were private property. As he didn’t have the presence of mind to don a pair of shorts, I don’t think he was able to quote them the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife regulations about shellfish limits.

The women skedaddled with their catch, and by the time Tom (clothed) reached the beach, he found they’d cleaned out the entire bed.

We lived without oysters for a while. Then, two years ago, Tom visited a friend on Hood Canal, where oysters entirely cover the beach. He came back with a couple of bags to restart our little colony.

This year we decided to harvest a few and found that either those women have been sneaking back in the dead of night, or our oysters are having trouble making babies. Though the individuals have grown in size, the numbers haven’t changed. We picked them all up and checked for attached juveniles and found not a one.

After reading about the decline of coastal oysters, I looked for similar stories about Puget Sound oyster reproduction, wondering if warming waters could be the cause. I found nothing suggesting sound oysters are not reproducing, but plenty about pollution.

According to the Puget Sound Partnership Web site, “Since 1980, approximately 30,000 acres of commercial shellfish growing areas have been closed to harvest because of pollution.” The only native West Coast oyster, the Olympia, has been wiped out by overharvesting and pollution. Runoff from development has silted the bottom of bays making it impossible for baby oysters to take hold of something solid. A project by the Nature Conservancy, funded by NOAA, the USDA, the state Department of Ecology and the Russell Family Foundation, is restoring habitat for the Olympia.

At the risk of exposing myself as a tree hugger or getting flamed myself, I have to ask a question that’s been nagging at me for some time.

Whenever a story of this type, i.e. centered on climate change and pollution, appears, why do some folks find it necessary to pooh-pooh the idea of cleaning up our act? What is wrong with doing things the right way, because it’s the right thing to do? So what if the actual cause of species extinction and extreme weather is finally found to be natural global processes? Does that mean Seattle should stop treating sewage and just dump it straight into Lake Union like in the old days? Should we increase the amount of chemical waste being pumped into the Duwamish River?

I don’t think so. The oysters are telling us they don’t either.

For more information — Guide for shoreline living – EPA Georgia Basin Shellfish Page; Puget Sound Partnership Sound Facts; Tidal Life Blog.

Questions or comments for Tidal Life? E-mail tidallife@whidbey.com.