Engaging Students and Public in Marine Conservation Through Sustainable Shellfish Aquaculture

Project Size: Large, >$1,000
Estimated Amount to be requested from the CSF: $20,000

Letter of Intent:

The UW School of Aquatic & Fishery Sciences (SAFS) is home to some of the world's leading experts in shellfish biology, genetics, and disease ecology. Faculty and students are actively engaged in applied research to inform and improve shellfish aquaculture and restoration. Shellfish aquaculture is major economic driver in Washington and the Pacific Northwest region, supporting over 3,200 jobs and contributing over $270 million per year to rural and coastal economies (http://www.ecy.wa.gov/water/marine/oa/2012report_summary.pdf). Shellfish, in turn, act as natural filters, improving water quality while creating habitat for other aquatic species. Unfortunately, despite the positive impacts of shellfish research at SAFS, there are few, if any, opportunities for students to experience shellfish farming first-hand. The goal of the proposed project is to establish a student-run shellfish farm at Big Beef Creek, a SAFS field research site on Washington’s Hood Canal. The proposed project specifically addresses all four criteria set by the Campus Sustainability Fund RFP.

Methods: The UW Shellfish Farm is modeled after the UW Campus Farm in Seattle, in which students rotate and share the responsibilities of operating a sustainable food production system under the guidance of experts. Shellfish “seed” –i.e. juvenile oysters and clams - will be acquired from partners at the Puget Sound Restoration Fund and Taylor Shellfish Inc., and deployed in the field. After approximately one year, market-size shellfish will be harvested and sold through campus eateries and a subscription service offered to the UW community. Like the UW campus, revenue generated through product sales will be directed towards maintenance, and the repayment of loans associated with start-up costs. It is our goal that the shellfish farm be self-sustaining. We propose to draw upon the cumulative expertise of SAFS faculty, industry and conservation partners to ensure the farm is properly designed, built and maintained. Support from the Campus Sustainability Fund will be directed towards the initial cost of grow-out equipment and shellfish seed, as well as the development of outreach and environmental monitoring programs.

Environmental Impact: The Farm will be located at Big Beef Creek Field Research Station, a 400-acre site owned by the University and administered by SAFS. Big Beef is comprised of a flowing freshwater creek, salt marsh, mud flats and other prime shellfish habitat. Wild populations of Pacific oyster, geoduck clam and other shellfish currently thrive at Big Beef, attesting to the suitability of the site for our project. The aquaculture system we propose to install is low impact, and poses minimal threat existing natural resources. Rather, enhanced shellfish populations in Big Beef Creek will result in reductions in turbidity, reduced nitrogenous wastes, and improved habitat for invertebrates and juvenile fish. We propose to implement a monitoring system to quantify the ecosystem impacts of shellfish aquaculture (see “Outreach”).

Student Leadership & Involvement: The UW Shellfish Farm was conceived by several SAFS graduate students, and will remain a student-led and -operated venture. The Farm will provide opportunities for multiple levels of student involvement, but will rely upon a sufficient base level of available labor. To minimize risk associated with under-staffing, the size of the Farm will be scaled appropriately to match the level of student participation. We are currently building our network of Faculty and Industry advisors to ensure we abide by business “best practices” in this regard.

Education, Outreach & Behavior Change: Shellfish aquaculture is sustainable as it requires no food inputs; shellfish derive nutrients by filtering phytoplankton from the water column. As such, shellfish aquaculture is intrinsically linked to estuarine health. The proposed project will serve as a natural teaching laboratory for topics pertaining to water quality, estuarine ecology and climate change impacts. We propose to conduct outreach through several channels. First, we will develop a monitoring system for estuarine health. Specifically, we will monitor bacterial levels, turbidity, dissolved oxygen, and other water quality metrics to quantify the long-term impacts of the Farm on Big Beef Creek. Data from our monitoring program will be incorporated into ongoing SAFS research and disseminated to the scientific community and general public.

Second, we propose to develop several experiential outreach programs for UW students, local K-12 schools, and the general public. Curricula will focus on estuarine biodiversity, marine pathogens, and the impacts of ocean acidification on marine invertebrates. SAFS graduate students and Faculty currently conduct research in these areas, and will lead educational outings on the farm during low tides. UW students volunteering on the farm will have a unique immersive opportunity to experience the estuarine environment.

Finally, the Farm will serve as a field site for ongoing SAFS shellfish research. Carolyn Friedman (SAFS), an advisor on the proposed project, is currently leading an investigation into the genetic basis for “resistance” to ocean acidification in the Pacific oyster.

Feasibility, Accountability and Sustainability: Establishing and maintaining a shellfish farm is a large undertaking, but one for which the applicants are prepared. Two of the graduate students leading the proposal have experience working in oyster aquaculture. In addition, the proposed initiative benefits from the technical supervision of four SAFS core faculty, one SAFS Post-doc, and several industry experts, including the 30-year owner/operator of a successful shellfish aquaculture operation. We will continue to meet with SAFS administrators and University personnel responsible for the use of Big Beef Creek, as well as Food Service personnel involved in the distribution of seafood products. SAFS currently employs a full-time caretaker at Big Beef Creek who will monitor the project when students are not present.

We are in the process of developing formal partnerships between the UW Shellfish Farm and Washington Sea Grant (WASG), Puget Sound Restoration Fund, and Taylor Shellfish Inc. We are seeking financial and material support from all three sources that will supplement awards received from the Campus Sustainability Fund.

Conclusion: The UW Shellfish farm will provide a unique opportunity for students and the public to experience a globally-important means of sustainable food production, while learning about the effects of human disturbance and climate change on the marine ecosystem.

Primary Contact First & Last Name: Daniel Gillon