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Ground zero for future of oyster farming


With consumers wolfing down millions of its shellfish every year and clamoring for more, Hog Island Oyster Co. should be sitting pretty on the east shore of scenic Tomales Bay, a bountiful estuary abutting Point Reyes National Seashore.

Co-founder John Finger, a surfer-entrepreneur with a degree in marine biology, decided to farm the mile-wide and 15-mile-long bay due to its productivity and proximity to the Bay Area's food-savvy multitudes.

Seeded by a $500 family loan in 1983, the oyster farm has prospered — propelled by a nationwide yen for raw oysters on the half shell — into a business that sells about $10 million worth of bivalves a year, employing about 120 workers who feel a bit like family themselves.

Finger and his business partner, Terry Sawyer, appear to have done everything right, including Sawyer's design of the eight wet storage tanks that bathe every oyster, clam and mussel in purified water for at least 24 hours, assuring their cleanliness before they go to market.

Listen to Finger, 58, assess the firm's trajectory. Standing in Hog Island's outdoor picnic area on Highway 1 in the Marin County hamlet of Marshall, he says the 31-year-old venture has never kept up with consumer demand, which continues to skyrocket.

But the shellfish farming industry's future is clouded by climate change, and Hog Island is at ground zero of the impact.

"It's scary when you think about it," Finger said.

California's $25-million-a-year shellfish industry intends to double its value in five years, and the U.S. Department of Commerce predicts that the nation's aquaculture industry — serving a country that imports 90 percent of its seafood — will triple in size from $1 billion to $3 billion by 2025.

Against that ideal backdrop looms the phenomenon of oceans that are irrevocably growing more acidic as they absorb billions of tons of carbon dioxide released every year by the combustion of fossil fuels.

Ocean acidification, dubbed the "evil twin" of climate change, has already wreaked havoc in the West Coast oyster farming industry, accounting for massive die-offs at oyster seed hatcheries that Hog Island and other California oyster farms depend on for annual planting, like any other food crop.

Oysters draw minerals from seawater to build their calcium carbonate shells, and acidic water inhibits the process.

Mature oysters are so far unharmed by ocean acidity that has increased by 30 percent since the onset of the industrial age in 1850. But that could change, with acidity expected to double by 2100.

Hog Island is bracing itself against this perilous future, building an oyster seed factory on Humboldt Bay — 250 miles north of Marshall — intended to ensure their supply of seeds.

It's an aspect of the business that Finger and Sawyer, both marine biologists, never expected to enter, but circumstances dictated their move. "We have a tendency to step out ahead of people," Sawyer said.

At the same time, Hog Island anticipates the reopening in early May of its popular oyster bar at the Ferry Building on San Francisco's bayfront. Lines stretching out the door prompted a remodeling that will double the size of the restaurant.

Hog Island started out selling raw oysters to three Bay Area restaurants: Chez Panisse, Zuni Cafe and Hayes Street Bar and Grill.

But Finger and Sawyer, who envisioned a "bay to bar" business model, now sell 85 percent of their oysters direct to diners primarily at two oyster bars in San Francisco and a third in Napa. The company also supplies shellfish to about 24 restaurants.

Slurping fresh oysters and sipping wine at the Ferry Building, with views of Oakland and Berkeley across the water, is "one of the best things to do in San Francisco," Los Angeles Times food editor Russ Parsons wrote in January.

The Wall Street Journal documented a North American "oyster renaissance" in 2012, saying that aficionados speak of "merroir," the character an oyster takes from the place where it grows, just as wine lovers refer to terroir, the vineyard's stamp on the fermented product.

Mature oysters filter their own food out of 50 gallons of water a day.

Oyster lovers also make a pilgrimage to the Hog Island facility in Marshall, housed in two 1800s-vintage woodframe buildings that were once the post office and general store.

A kiosk sells oysters by the bag to go or for consumption in the picnic area, with shucking lessons for folks who need them.

"How much fresher can you get?" said Mauricio Vallejo of San Jose, placing unopened oysters, along with sausages and red grapes, over charcoal on one of the six metal grills overlooking Tomales Bay.

Vallejo, a restaurant chef, fixed a sauce of goat cheese, vinegar mignonette and chipotle Tabasco to complement the oysters, which popped open as they cooked.

His group bought 50 oysters to eat raw on the half shell and 18 larger oysters for the grill. "I think we can kill it with four people," said Ricardo Ramirez, another of the three chefs in the group.

Tomales Bay, formed along a submerged portion of the San Andreas Fault, affords Hog Island a tranquil setting that is also free of industry, except for the dairy and cattle ranches bordering the waterway.

A long-term lease from the state on 160 acres of submerged oyster beds insulates Hog Island from the controversy that engulfed nearby Drakes Bay Oyster Co., which is carrying its battle against a federal government shutdown order to the Supreme Court.

The cloud over Hog Island — and other shellfish purveyors along with them — is an atmospheric carbon dioxide level higher now than at any time in the past 650,000 years, according to Al Gore's Oscar-winning 2006 documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth."

In 2007, the consequences for the West Coast oyster industry hit with a massive die-off of oyster seed at Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery near Tillamook, Ore.

Hog Island, like other California oyster farms, buys seed — tiny oysters measuring about one-tenth of an inch — which they plant in shallow estuaries like Tomales Bay, where the mollusks grow to market size in 18 months to three years, depending on the species.

Whiskey Creek was "the canary in the coal mine," said oceanographer Tessa Hill, one of four researchers at the Bodega Marine Laboratory in Bodega Bay who formed an ocean acidification working group in 2007.

Moreover, they now know that the West Coast is "at the forefront" of ocean acidification's relentless onslaught, Hill said.

"We see some of the most acidic waters in the world," she said.

The same upwelling system that bathes the North Coast in nutrient-rich water, promoting life from tiny phytoplankton to massive blue whales, also brings up water turned acidic by decomposing organic matter at the bottom of the ocean.

Hill's team raised oysters in laboratory aquariums that created the carbon dioxide level experts expect the ocean to reach in a century, with nearly three times the current level of dissolved carbon dioxide. The young mollusks were undersized, with thinner shells more susceptible to damage from waves and predators, Hill said.

Finger and Sawyer are collaborating with Hill's team, but they aren't just waiting for the results. The Humboldt Bay hatchery, due for completion in the fall, is intended to shore up future oyster seed shortages.

The company declined to say how much the hatchery cost.

Meanwhile, the Earth's carbon dioxide levels continue to soar.

Greenhouse gas emissions from 2000 to 2010 were the highest in human history, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported this month.

In 2011, carbon dioxide emissions from consumption of fossil fuels worldwide totalled 32 billion metric tons, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said. The ocean absorbed up to 30 percent of it, scientists say, or nearly 10 billion metric tons.

John Finger, standing by a sparkling Tomales Bay on a sunny spring day, contemplated the potential impact on his livelihood and the fecund waters it depends on.

"It's mind-boggling to think about it sometimes," he said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.)