Climate Change

Will Mussel Aquaculture Be Viable Along The California Coast?


By Priya Shukla

Mussels are found the world over. Many native freshwater mussels are admired for their ability to clean our streams and rivers, while invasive ones (which are actually clams masquerading as mussels!) are reviled for voraciously eating plankton and clogging pipes. The shells and tissues of mussels are often used as monitoring instruments because they reliably record changes in the surrounding environment.

musselsIn western North America, tightly packed conglomerations of the California mussel span from southwest Alaska to the end of Baja California. And, archaeological evidence indicates that the indigenous peoples of western North America consumed these mussels 13,000 years before moules-frites appeared on seafood restaurant menus in Pacific coast backwaters.

Although mussels have a rich tradition in European cuisine – going so far as to appear in Enlightenment-era art – oysters have reigned as the primary shellfish consumed throughout the United States, including in California. As demand for oysters grew and natural populations dwindled, the U.S. oyster industry transitioned from harvesting natural oyster beds to growing them in coastal waters (“aquaculture”). Oysters have been farmed in California since 1929, but mussels have been farmed in Europe since the 13th century. With global demands in seafood increasing, mussel farming – a $3 billion global industry – is now emerging along the California coast.

musselsAquaculture was responsible for nearly half of the seafood consumed in 2015, and farmed shellfish made up 10% of all seafood consumed that year. Mussels grow the most easily of all farmed shellfish, reaching market size within a year. They are incredibly nutritious; a single Blue Mussel contains only 290 calories, but has 40g of protein and 1,500mg of Omega-3 fatty acids. While these characteristics make mussels an ideal target for a profitable business and for securing food resources around the world, it is unclear how the changing climate will affect the success of these mussel farms.

California’s coastline is on the frontlines of climate change. San Diego saw its warmest ocean temperatures this past summer, a toxic algal bloom closed the San Francisco Bay Area Dungeness Crab industry in 2015, and oyster and abalone farms are actively combatting acidifying waters. Mussels, like oysters and abalone, build a protective calcium carbonate shell to protect their soft tissues from the elements. In more acidic waters, mussels – especially young ones – have a hard time building their shells and the protein-laden byssal threads (“beards”) that they use to secure themselves to the rocky shore degrade. They are also incredibly sensitive to rises in temperature.

beachFor my doctoral research at UC Davis, I plan to study how climate change will affect the mussel aquaculture industry. Because farmed mussels are often suspended on ropes using their byssal threads, I am interested in exploring whether warmer, more acidic waters will prevent mussels from staying attached to ropes and affect their overall production. Mussel aquaculture presents many opportunities in California and around the world, and I hope to use my research to make mussel farms an enduring and robust enterprise as the oceans continue to change.



Empathy as a Universal Language

By Ashley Collier Smart

In spite of the environmental disasters that are caused by mining and burning coal, I cannot help but be at least a little fond of it, if only for selfish reasons. For the last 300 years, coal work has provided a livelihood for my relatives—I have the family name of Collier to attest to this fact. During an age when people adopted their trade as a last name my relatives were employed as Colliers, or coal miners. I come from a line of Colliers dating back to the 1700’s with relatives working in coal in western Europe before immigrating to America.

My family’s story is the story of coal and the American Dream, where workers believed hard work could translate to economic freedom. Nearly one million people a year were involved in mining coal at the peak in the 1920’s. These jobs provided a stable source of income that did not require an extensive skill set for native-born and recently arrived immigrants. However, coal mining was a dangerous profession fraught with lax worker regulations and precarious mine construction. The lives of coal miners became collateral for keeping up with the increasing demand for heating fuel and electricity that drove the greatest advances in the quality of life ever known.

burning coal
Burning coal and the release of carbon dioxide is one of many ways coal disrupts the environment. Mountaintop removal is a method of coal extraction which negatively alters the surrounding ecosystem (Photo: Wikipedia).

As the scientific process chugged along and coal burning was discovered to be a potent contributor to climate change, coal gained a dirty reputation and rightfully became a target for regulations. A new generation, my generation, has grown up with increasing alarm at the prospect of irreversible climate change and the coal industry a political issue. It wasn’t only coal that was vilified, but it was also the people who mined coal. Simultaneously revered and disenfranchised, coal workers moved from providing the fuel for the engines of the American economy to being unemployed en mass in economically depressed regions as green energy alternatives became more popular.

As a climate scientist, I study the consequences of increased oceanic acidity which is a by-product of fossil fuel combustion, but because of my coal connections I recognize the complexity of the human element of coal. My association with coal is not simple, but nuanced, filled with both rational and emotional connections for and against coal–and I don’t think that this is an uncommon position. In an increasingly partisan environment where dog whistling defines the political norm, we risk creating false dichotomies that pit coal workers against the environment.

Coal burning contributes to climate change and must be reduced, but it has historically provided a reliable livelihood for many people in impoverished areas. We should be more cognizant of the regional impact of reducing coal mining and empathetic to facilitate productive conversation. We need to lie down our verbal weapons and listen. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we have to agree with the decisions people make, but an awareness of why people feel the way they do fosters trust and allows these conversations to take place to develop solutions.

Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide
Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide have rapidly risen since the industrial revolution. The NOAA Mauna Loa Observatory has tracked levels of carbon dioxide in the air starting in 1958.
coal workers
Coal workers traditionally engaged in dangerous mining work where they were exposed to a number of toxic substances (Photo: Wikipedia).
Av number of coal workers
Average number of coal workers in the United States from 1890 to 2015. The number of coal workers has declined over time resulting in displaced workers in economically depressed regions (Photo: Wikipedia).