Shaping the Sound with Shellfish

By David O. Skattebo ’15

The tide was low on Geoduck Beach on a wet and foggy spring afternoon, and a dedicated band of Greeners slogged through the tide flats, crunching barnacles beneath their feet. They came prepared with tall rubber boots, shucking knives, and whetted appetites. These students are reviving a Pacific Northwest tradition that dates back thousands of years: harvesting oysters and eating them on the spot.

Aimee Christy MES ‘05 and Mary Middleton ’99 and MES ’04

Research biologists with the Pacific Shellfish Institute, Aimee Christy MES ‘05 (left) and Mary Middleton ’99, MES ’04 (right), examine and maintain one of their community shellfish gardens in the tideflats of Puget Sound.

Photos by Dani Winder ’14.

“The South Puget Sound is home to some of the finest oysters in the world,” said Emily Dunn-Wilder, current coordinator of the Evergreen Shellfish Club. “We have an incredible asset in having an unspoiled beach on campus—so why not use it? Students who come to our weekly work parties get a belly full of excellent seafood for the price of their own effort. And that’s exactly what college students want.”

But tasty oysters from their on-campus shellfish garden are not the only motivator for members of the Shellfish Club. “Shellfish give many benefits back to the ecosystem, namely by filtering the water,” said Dunn-Wilder. “Shellfish cultivation is an excellent source of healthy, local protein. Our goal is to make more students aware of this resource and to build their connection to Puget Sound.”

Pacific Shellfish Institute

The Evergreen Shellfish Club’s saltwater gardening benefits from a strong, supportive relationship with a group that is reshaping the way shellfish cultivation is done in Puget Sound. The Pacific Shellfish Institute (PSI) is an Olympia-based nonprofit that provides scientific research to the shellfish industry and nonprofit groups to support sustainable shellfish production and ecologically informed ocean-planning decisions. Four of the seven PSI staff members are Evergreen alumni, and the institute’s advisory board includes a member of Evergreen’s faculty.

“We’re helping Puget Sound recover through our core mission: fostering sustainable shellfish resources and a healthy marine environment through research and education,” said Bobbi Hudson ’01, MES ‘05, executive director at PSI.

“Sustainable shellfish resources and a healthy marine environment are completely codependent,” said Hudson. “In my opinion, we cannot have a healthy Puget Sound without sustainable shellfish production, just as we cannot have shellfish resources without a healthy marine environment.”

Mary Middleton and Bobbi Hudson ’01 and MES ’04

Research biologists with the Pacific Shellfish Institute, Aimee Christy MES ‘05 (left) and Mary Middleton ’99 and MES ’04 (right), examine and maintain one of their community shellfish gardens in the tideflats of Puget Sound.

This dedication to a healthy Puget Sound fuels a commitment to educating people about water quality and the factors that threaten it. “If people want to continue to enjoy the abundance of Puget Sound, whether it’s the recreational opportunities or the bounty of natural resources it provides, we have to protect and maintain water quality,” said Mary Middleton ’99, MES ‘04, research biologist at the institute.

Since 1995, the Pacific Shellfish Institute has conducted research and educational campaigns about water quality and shellfish production up and down the West Coast. PSI regularly assesses shellfish production practices in different regions, including environmental and economic impacts, and provides recommendations for planning sustainable shellfish aquaculture operations.

The scope of PSI’s research is wide. Some examples include recent reports on ocean acidification and its degrading effect on young oysters, shellfish as “first-responders” to chemical spills, and assessments of alternative shellfish production practices.

In Thurston County, PSI has led a campaign since 2005 called “Scoopy-Doo” to make more people aware of the impact of pet waste on Puget Sound water quality. They’ve gone on to help other communities carry out similar campaigns. They also provide training and resources for waterfront homeowners to start their own small-scale shellfish gardens, and coordinate trips to shellfish farms for Thurston County elementary and middle schools.

Middleton said Evergreen’s interdisciplinary approach helped prepare her to take on the range of issues PSI addresses in improving and protecting Puget Sound water quality. “Our projects change all the time, so we have to be prepared to talk about pet waste one minute and nutrient bio-extraction the next.”

PSI works in an interagency mix, winning grants from government agencies including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the United States Department of Agriculture. State and local governments along with private foundations, such as the Russell Family Foundation, are also important sources of funding.

“Evergreen’s science programs have helped prepare me for the realities of applied research,” said Hudson. PSI’s portfolio includes applied biological, ecological, and oceanographic research, education, outreach, and social sciences. “My Evergreen education has also aided my role as a non-profit administrator because I am able to see the interconnected nature of issues we must engage to solve pressing environmental problems.”

Gerardo Chin-Leo, longtime Evergreen marine biology faculty, sees Evergreen’s interdisciplinary approach as responsible for PSI’s success in tying together the complex issues around shellfish production, and for inspiring students. Chin-Leo sits on PSI’s advisory board and is the faculty advisor for the Shellfish Club, along with marine science faculty Erik Thuesen.

“Shellfish production requires understanding of economics, scientific, and social implications,” said Chin-Leo. “With this understanding, PSI helps the shellfish industry take the ecological impacts of shellfish production into consideration—rather than focusing only on the demands of the economy—to make beneficial decisions accordingly.”

At Geoduck Beach, as the tide rose over the shellfish garden and the Shellfish Club prepared to go home, Emily Dunn-Wilder explained why they’d left the shucked oyster shells in a pile on the beach. "These shells are an indicator to any wild oyster larvae that this is a safe environment for oysters to live."

The Evergreen students and PSI are committed to a sustainable relationship with the Sound. Every decision reflects the interaction of the people and the natural environment, preserving this special place for generations to come.