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.