Engaging Students and Public in Marine Conservation Through Sustainable Shellfish Aquaculture

Executive Summary:

The UW Shellfish Farm is a project conceived by several graduate students, faculty and staff at the School of Aquatic & Fishery Sciences (SAFS), in collaboration with the School of Marine & Environmental Affairs (SMEA) and the College of the Environment. We seek to establish a student-run shellfish farm at the Big Beef Creek Research Station, a SAFS field site on Hood Canal. The overarching goals of the project are:

1)    Provide students and with a hands-on opportunity to experience sustainable seafood production.

2)    Conduct outreach and education on estuarine health and climate change impacts on the marine environment.

3)    Conduct monitoring to quantify environmental impacts of shellfish aquaculture on estuarine health.

4)    Serve as a field site for ongoing shellfish research at UW.

5)    Become self-sustaining by selling cultivated shellfish (e.g. clams, oysters) through wholesalers, UW dining establishments, a subscription service, and other outlets.


Our proposal is divided into two parts:

Phase I consists of a feasibility study for the Farm, including the development of a full business plan and management model, assessment of permitting requirements for commercial shellfish aquaculture and sales, initiation of permitting process through all necessary channels, formalization of partnerships with industry and other regional stakeholders (i.e. tribes, NGOs). We are poised to begin Phase I in Fall 2015.

Phase II consists of full implementation of the plan, namely the acquisition of grow-out materials, recruitment of student interns and volunteers, construction of a physical shellfish grow-out system at Big Beef Creek, acquisition and planting of shellfish “seed”, and development of educational and outreach material. Research conducted through Phase I will inform our cost estimates for Phase II.

We currently seek funding from the CSF to initiate Phase I. Funds requested will support a graduate student from the SMEA to conduct the feasibility study over three academic quarters, and will allow us to hire legal counsel to evaluate the legal requirements for developing an aquaculture operation on University property and to assist with the permitting process. 

Student Involvement:

The current proposal (Phase I) seeks funding to support a graduate student from the SMEA for three academic quarters of Research Assistantship, with the work comprising a component of a Master’s thesis. The student will work closely with Project Coordinators from SAFS and SMEA to achieve the following objectives:

1)    Assess permitting requirements for establishing commercial shellfish aquaculture operation, seafood handling and sales. Coordinate with state and Federal environmental agencies (Dept. of Health, WA Dept. of Fish & Wildlife, Army Corps of Engineers) and legal counsel to navigate permitting process through completion.

2)    In consultation with industry partners, determine budget and staffing (volunteers and full-time /part-time staff) requirements based on desired output and estimated operating costs.

3)    Determine most cost-effective means of transportation of students between the Seattle (and potentially Tacoma/Bothell) UW campus and Big Beef Creek.

4)    Develop options for formal partnership between UW and industry stakeholders– i.e. labor/profit sharing, seed acquisition.

5)    Coordinate with Housing & Food Services to design a model for sales of cultivated shellfish at University dining outlets – i.e. pricing, volume, permitting requirements.

6)    Coordinate with Environmental Health & Safety to ensure that all proposed work abides by environmental and labor requirements.

7)    Produce final report and business plan to SAFS and the Project Team, with findings and recommendations for implementation.

At the same time, the Project Team, with the support of Taylor Shellfish, Inc. will provide technical expertise to ensure that the feasibility study is based on biologically relevant goals. Our team (see below) has decades of combined expertise in shellfish aquaculture, and will ensure that the siting and business model account for the ecology and biological requirements of the species of interest – Manila clam (Venerupis phillipinarum) and Pacific oyster (Crassostrea gigas). SAFS Project Coordinators will ensure that industry partners are actively engaged in the Phase I process.

Like the highly successful UW Farm, we envision that the Shellfish Farm will provide numerous opportunities for student involvement at varying levels. Students will be able to work on the water cultivating shellfish, gaining unique exposure to a sustainable and globally important food system. Further, we aim to encourage student leadership by creating opportunities to coordinate planting, maintenance, and harvesting schedules, and to lead outreach events and farm tours. We hope to build formalized relationships with SAFS, SMEA, and other academic units on campus to provide opportunities for UW students to conduct research at the Farm.


With support from multiple UW Faculty and Staff, the following graduate students are currently leading the effort to establish the Farm:

Daniel Gillon (SAFS) – Project Coordinator - M.S. student

Jake Heare (SAFS) – M.S. student

Molly Jackson (SAFS, Taylor Shellfish Inc.) – M.S. student and Research Hatchery Manager at Taylor Shellfish.


Our Faculty and Staff mentors are:

Steven Roberts – Associate Professor, SAFS - Project Coordinator

Carolyn Friedman – Professor, SAFS

Kerry Naish – Associate Professor, SAFS

Joth Davis – Affiliate Professor, SAFS, Owner, Baywater Shellfish Inc.

Brent Vadopalas – Research Scientist, SAFS

Stephanie Harrington – Associate Dean, Planning and Initiatives, CoENV

André Punt – Professor and Director, SAFS 


Education & Outreach:

While the sustainable production of shellfish is a primary objective of the Shellfish Farm, the broader impacts of the project will be realized through outreach and educational programs. Our specific outreach and educational goals are:

1)    Partner with UW academic departments (i.e. SAFS, SMEA, Biology) to integrate Farm visits into academic course curricula and student research opportunities (i.e. capstone projects). FISH 404 (Sustainable Aquaculture) is one example of an upper-level undergraduate course that, through field trips, provides students with unique exposure to a variety of aquatic farms and hatcheries in Washington.

2)    Develop outreach materials regarding sustainable aquaculture, estuarine biodiversity, marine pathogens, and the impacts of ocean acidification on marine invertebrates.

3)    Lead seminars for the UW community and general public.

4)    Train student leaders to assume roles as environmental educators.

5)    Provide a suitable space for ongoing and future shellfish research by graduate and undergraduate researchers at UW. **Note that the current proposal does not seek funding for research, nor does it directly benefit the applicants’ current research projects.

Our proposal coincides with the first year of the Marine Biology major at UW, and so we hope to take advantage of new opportunities for partnership and outreach this year. In particular, the Farm will be set to host capstone research projects for undergraduate Marine Biology students (BIO 479). The Shellfish Farm will also be able to naturally integrate with the Food Studies track within the UW College of the Environment, such as FISH 424 and BIO 465 (http://www.food.washington.edu). We foresee opportunities to contribute to food-related courses at the UW, as well as other “Farm-Ed” seminars and sustainability workshops.

Upon successful completion of Phase I, and with feasibility determined, we will design and publish an official website for the Shellfish farm. The site will host information about the farm, including an events calendar and blog. We will similarly create a social media presence for the Farm to help attract and maintain interest from the student body and general public.

In the future, we foresee students engaging in regional shellfish industry events, such as the WA Sea Grant Shellfish Growers Conference and the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association annual meeting. Such activities will help broaden support for the Farm while more importantly fostering lasting relationships between the student body and industry stakeholders.


Environmental Impact:
  • Food
  • Living Systems and Biodiversity
  • Water
Project Longevity:

The University of Washington is committed to making student access at Big Beef Creek a priority. Over the long term, we envision that the farm will be led by a full-time manager (salaried), as well as by a core group of graduate students in coordination with faculty and industry partners. Because several SAFS and SMEA faculty have ongoing interests in shellfish aquaculture, there will undoubtedly be a constant flow of new graduate students with expertise in this area. Consequently, we expect consistent interest and renewed involvement of student leadership with each passing academic year.

As the Farm grows, so too does the opportunity to experiment with new methods of shellfish cultivation, and to monitor the impacts of the farm on the estuary. Phase I will yield a concrete management plan for the Farm and a determination of whether and how the Farm can be self-sustaining over the long-term. The feasibility study will model potential income from sales against various methods and scales of shellfish cultivation. In addition to generating revenue through shellfish sales (i.e. 250,000 oysters x $0.35 = $87,500 per acre/year), we will seek additional funding from aquaculture and research granting institutions, including Washington Sea Grant, which has expressed initial interest in supporting the project.

We are additionally exploring several models for formal partnership with industry. Taylor Shellfish Inc., the largest producer of farmed shellfish in North America, has graciously agreed to serve as a technical advisor on the project. From preliminary discussions, Taylor Inc. may be able to provide an in-kind donation of “seed” oysters and clams for the project, as well as assist in the sale and distribution of UW Shellfish in exchange for a share of revenues.

Environmental Problem:

By setting an example of sustainable shellfish aquaculture, the UW Shellfish Farm aims to turn students’ attentions to the important question: “Where does our seafood come from?” Today, over 90% of seafood consumed in the US is imported, most often with no inspection for quality or proper labeling. With many foreign fisheries unregulated and potentially overfished, it is important that consumers recognize the importance of choosing “sustainably-sourced” seafood items. Shellfish aquaculture is one seafood production system that, when properly conceived, poses minimal impact to natural systems. Rather, shellfish act as biofilters; a single oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day. Through aquaculture efforts, enhanced shellfish populations result in reductions in turbidity, reduced nitrogenous wastes, and improved habitat for invertebrates and juvenile fish. 

We aim to connect students with the theory and practice of cultivating shellfish. Because these animals acquire their food by filtering the water, the success of a shellfish aquaculture venture depends wholly on the health of the estuary in which they are raised. By working on the water, students will become intimately acquainted with the Big Beef Creek estuary and the environmental factors that affect it. Students will also gain firsthand knowledge and skills required to operate a shellfish aquaculture business. 

The UW Shellfish Farm aims to provide students with a hands-on opportunity to experience sustainable seafood production and to provide the UW community with a locally produced seafood item. More broadly, we hope to serve as a catalyst for conversation and awareness about marine ecosystem health and climate change.


Explain how the impacts will be measured:

The UW Shellfish Farm will contribute to environmental conservation through several direct and indirect means. First, the intensive production of shellfish will improve water quality conditions at Big Beef Creek. In Puget Sound, production of single Pacific oysters for the half-shell market using traditional on-bottom methods typically yields approximately 240,000 oysters per acre with a biomass of about 36,000 pounds. Over a two-year harvest cycle, production is typically 18,000 pounds per acre per year. The UW Shellfish Farm could be scaled to several acres within the 40-acre Big Beef Estuary.

Phase II of the project proposal will involve the development of an environmental monitoring program to quantify the impacts of the shellfish farm on water quality in Big Beef Creek. Specifically, we aim to monitor bacterial levels, turbidity, dissolved oxygen, and carbonate chemistry in the estuary. Data from our monitoring program could be readily incorporated into SAFS research and disseminated to the scientific community and general public.

There is both precedent and ongoing interest in establishing environmental monitoring at Big Beef Creek. From 2009-2011, Big Beef Creek was one of several sites in Puget Sound where oysters and environmental data were collected in order to better understand the relationship between environment and organism health. Several research products resulted from this effort, known as PROPS (Physiological Response of Oysters in Puget Sound, http://faculty.washington.edu/sr320/?p=589). Data collected from monitoring at BBC, like in PROPS, can readily aid resource managers, policy makers, and scientists in assessing remediation efforts, restoration activities, and allow for informed predictions of risks associated with changes in habitat quality. The Big Beef Creek estuary is also currently a priority site for the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Project (http://pnwsalmoncenter.org/project/lower-big-beef-creek-design/), and so positive attention created by implementing the farm may make the site more desirable for further conservation efforts.

Direct impacts of the shellfish farm can also be quantified through the number of students that: 1) participate in environmental outreach and education programs on the farm, 2) utilize the farm for capstone research, and 3) volunteer to work on the farm. As of Spring 2015, there are approximately 400 students participating in SAFS, Marine Biology and SMEA undergraduate and graduate programs, and hundreds more involved in other academic programs within the College of the Environment. Thus, the potential for diverse student involvement is extremely high.

SAFS Director André Punt is currently exploring options for expanding the use Big Beef Creek for student activities, including incorporating site visits into relevant SAFS course curricula (FISH 310, FISH 404, etc.). 

Total amount requested from the CSF: $27,400
This funding request is a: Grant
If this is a loan, what is the estimated payback period?:


ItemCost per ItemQuantityTotal Cost
SMEA Research Associateship Funding$7300/qtr.3 quarters$21,900
Legal Counsel$5,000$5,000
Other project expenses (misc.), including transport, printing, survey equipment$500$500

Non-CSF Sources:

NameType of DonationStatus
Taylor Shellfish Inc.Technical supervision, in-kind materialsConfirmed technical supervisory role, in talks regarding seed acquisition
Puget Sound Restoration FundFinancialIn discussion
Washington Sea GrantFinancialIn discussion
Project Completion Total: $27,400


Quarter 1 (tasks below)Quarter 2Quarter 3
Consult with legal counsel, UW and state agencies on zoning/permitting requirements for BBCDevelop draft business plan – Draft report with final recommendations and feasibility assessment for Committee
Consult with Taylor, Inc. and project team to determine optimal growout system - Assess budget requirements for transportation to/from site
State aquaculture permit consultation/initiate process – WA Dept. of Natural Resources, WA Dept. of Ecology - Budget/staffing requirements for daily operations, material
Federal aquaculture permit consultation/initiate process – US Army Corps of Engineers, - Consult with HFS on revenue model for shellfish sales
Produce final report to SAFS and Project Team with findings and recommendations for implementation - Consult with Taylor Inc. on potential models for labor/profit sharing
Legal Assessment of UW Real Estate HoldingsMonitor permits, coordinate with state and federal agencies to facilitate site visits as needed