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My Day with a Sea Grant Extension Professional

Burrowing shrimp, pesticides, and off-bottom culture…Oh My!

By: Christopher Katalinas, NOAA Sea Grant

“Good morning! Welcome to Astoria.”

The day started with a typical greeting one would expect when meeting someone for the first time. As we walked towards Paul’s aging truck, which I could only describe as “having lots of character,” I knew I was about to embark on an entertaining adventure.

Paul Dye is the Assistant Director for Outreach at Washington Sea Grant. I learned right away that Paul has a gift for telling stories, and throughout the day I found myself hanging on every word.

With barely one foot in Paul’s truck, I scrambled to throw my bags down and start scribbling in my tiny notebook as he jumped right into the history of the region’s shellfish industry and the challenges it faces today.

As a Knauss Fellow specializing in science communication with the National Sea Grant Office, I had the opportunity to attend the 2017 Sea Grant Extension Assembly and Communicator Conference in Astoria, Oregon. Excited about visiting the Pacific Northwest for the first time, I arranged with Paul to arrive a day early and visit Goose Point Oysters to learn about oyster aquaculture in Willapa Bay, which is just a short drive north of Astoria in southwest Washington. And learn I did.

Paul generously shared his knowledge about the regional aquaculture industry. He explained how management decisions in Washington tend to favor recreational over commercial fisheries, and how misunderstandings about fishing rights can create hostility among stakeholder groups. I was amazed to learn that commercial, recreational and tribal fishermen maintain respect for one another and the use of science to set regulations, since they all have a similar goal of using coastal and ocean resources in a sustainable way.

Paul continued to explain that coastal towns have struggled to maintain natural resource-dependent economies, depending more on recreational fishing, tourism and aquaculture than in past decades.

“You can see these towns turning more and more to tourism, and so the waterfront is starting to change and the commercial infrastructure is starting to fade away,” said Paul Dye as we drove through a working waterfront town spanning the length of a whopping three city blocks.

Shellfish aquaculture is a long-standing economic engine in Washington. I was surprised to learn that about 60% of the farmed oysters produced in the United States come from Willapa Bay. Most of these are Pacific oysters raised in hatcheries and grown on privately owned tidelands. The increasing worldwide demand for seafood, coupled with the environmental health of Willapa Bay, has allowed the industry to expand.

According to Paul, the Washington shellfish aquaculture industry still faces uphill battles around permitting restrictions, competing for space with an invasive Japanese eelgrass and sediment disturbances caused by burrowing shrimp. These disruptive shrimp can turn the sediment into an almost “quicksand-like” material, making it nearly impossible to raise oysters on the bottom of the bay – which has been the traditional method. Scientists and industry professionals have tried countless mechanical, biological, and chemical methods to control the spread of burrowing shrimp into commercial oyster beds. Judicious use of pesticides as part of an integrated pest management strategy has shown the most promise, but public reactions to pesticide use of any kind have stalled progress toward a long-term solution.

As we drove through the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge, I assumed nothing could distract me from Paul’s descriptions of the industry, but that assumption was challenged as breathtaking scenery presented itself around every turn. With some difficulty, I managed to pull my attention away from the expansive marshlands and rolling mountains in the distance and maintain my focus on taking notes as I continued to scribble furiously in my notepad. Although, I did manage to sneak a few video clips with the GoPro.

After an engaging drive listening to Paul’s stories and admiring the lush marsh habitat, we arrived at Goose Point Oysters and were greeted with a warm welcome by the farm manager, Kathleen Nisbet.

Just when I thought I might have a chance to catch my breath and absorb all I learned from Paul, Kathleen proved to be equally as knowledgeable and dove right into an inspiring discussion about their farming and processing operations, as well as the challenges they face from an industry perspective. Out came the notepad and camera to capture even more of the shellfish aquaculture story in this small but influential region of the country.

I did manage to take a break near the end of the tour, however, to try a fresh oyster. The mental effort I invested earlier in the day was totally worth it.

After hearing Kathleen’s concerns over regulations on pesticide use and placement of off-bottom culture within the bay, I noticed how thoroughly Paul understood those concerns and how well prepared and even passionate he is in his support of regional oyster farmers. In that moment, I felt like I got a glimpse of what it truly means to be a Sea Grant professional.

Sea Grant personnel in extension and outreach like Paul share a passion for the community in which they work. They have empathy for the stakeholders in need of assistance and they share a drive to help identify the priorities of multiple agencies with competing interests to reach a common goal. In Willapa Bay, a place he feels at home, Paul expressed his hope to help guide an ecosystem-based management approach to benefit shellfish growers, commercial Dungeness crab fishermen, environmental agencies, recreational and subsistence fishermen and the tourism industry: an ambition that has almost become a staple of Sea Grant extension.

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