Biology professor works to keep Willapa Bay healthy and productive

Today, half of the West Coast’s oyster supply and roughly one in 10 oysters harvested in the U.S. comes from Willapa Bay, though it wasn’t always that way. While as early as 1849 the Chinook and Chehalis tribes were trading oysters to explorers, and in 1851 oysters from Shoalwater Bay—now Willapa Bay—were being shipped to San Francisco, by the 1880s overharvesting and competition from the East Coast had the industry in decline.

Washington’s shellfish industry got a boost in the 1920s, though, when UW alumnus Trevor Kincaid, first chairman of the UW’s Department of Zoology, took charge of the state-run shellfish lab in Willapa Bay. With Kincaid’s help the state’s oyster growers produced record harvests, reaching an all-time peak of 1,131,000 gallons of oyster meats in 1941.

Now, ensuring the bay will remain productive, without compromising its overall health, has become the mission of Jennifer Ruesink, ’96, an associate professor with UW Department of Biology. Over the past 10 years she has helped Willapa’s shellfish farmers defend their crops from drills—two non-native species of marine snails that bore holes into oyster shells and eat the succulent meat. She has also helped growers understand how to conduct their business without causing harm to eelgrass beds—underwater meadows that, because they serve as feeding grounds for waterfowl and breeding grounds for invertebrates and fish, are now protected by law.

“Willapa’s oysters have been intensively harvested for more than 150 years,” Ruesink explains. “Without guidance to shellfish growers from scientific studies like these, the bay’s oyster resource would’ve crashed decades ago.”

In recent years, a new threat to the bay’s productivity has emerged. Many shellfish growers depend on the oysters’ natural reproduction to restock their farms, but for the past six years, such recruitment has failed to reach commercially viable levels. With funding from Washington Sea Grant, Ruesink and her husband, UW Biology research scientist Alan Trimble, ’01, are currently pursuing the underlying causes of this serious shortfall, which may be related to global climate change.

As they conduct their research—collecting water samples and analyzing them in the lab—Ruesink and Trimble provide growers with weekly updates about the density and location of oyster larvae, along with a suite of critical water conditions, including acidity, which can reduce a larval oyster’s ability to construct its shell. Armed with this information, the growers can develop strategies for raising the larvae, despite seasonally hostile conditions.

Over the past decade, Ruesink, like Trevor Kincaid, has become a familiar figure to Willapa Bay’s shellfish farmers, who frequently drop by her Ocean Park lab to share their first-hand knowledge of the bay’s nuances. In return, they learn about what Ruesink calls “working with nature,” to keep Willapa’s waters—and the oysters that thrive in them—as pristine and productive as possible.