Climate change may benefit native oysters

Oysters can tolerate extremes better than predatory snails can — if the snails don’t get them first


This oyster habitat in Tomales Bay, California, contains high densities of invasive oyster drills, snails that prey on native oysters. CREDIT Brian Cheng/UC Davis
This oyster habitat in Tomales Bay, California, contains high densities of invasive oyster drills, snails that prey on native oysters. CREDIT Brian Cheng/UC Davis

Amid efforts to restore native oyster populations on the West Coast, how are oysters expected to fair under climate change in the decades and centuries to come? Not too badly, according to a study from the University of California, Davis. But there’s a big “if” involved.

In the study, published Oct. 10 in the journalFunctional Ecology, researchers investigated oysters in the lab and in oyster beds at California’s Tomales Bay and San Francisco Bay. They found that certain components of climate change may actually benefit oysters in California in the long term, provided they have enough food, because they tend to grow faster at warmer temperatures. Good news? Not so fast.

Meet oyster drills, two species of predatory snails introduced to California from the East Coast and Asia. While oysters are more tolerant of extreme temperatures and low salinity, such as can occur during floods, warming over the next few decades first benefits the oyster drills, increasing the rate at which they eat the oysters.

Oyster Drills ‘The Worst Way To Go’

“To me, it’s the worst way to go,” said lead author Brian Cheng, a doctoral candidate at UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory at the time of the study and currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. “Imagine you’re an oyster. You have a suit of armor you wear and that you cannot move. Imagine there was something that could crawl onto you and begin blasting away on your shell of armor. Imagine they could secrete acid and use a file-like tongue to bore tiny little holes into the shell. Then they insert their tongue and tear away bits of flesh, eating you alive. Once the hole is made, the oyster is basically done.”

The silver lining is that oyster drills are relatively easy to find, identify and remove. Cheng said this makes them a good candidate for eradication.


The Last Native Oyster

Oysters are an iconic California seafood, and while the Olympia oyster is the only native oyster on the West Coast, it is no longer fished in California. Most oysters slurped down by consumers are farmed Pacific oysters native to Asia.

But wild oysters hold benefits beyond the gustatory: Their complex shell formations harbor other animals and plants, serving as habitat. Researchers are also investigating how they may help buffer the effects of sea level rise, contributing to a “living shoreline” that reduces rates of erosion.

In addition to holding management implications for native oyster populations, the study is also relevant for oyster farms, though they were not the focus of the research. Oyster farmers are well aware of oyster drill issues, Cheng said, but the study points out that the drill problem is expected to get worse before it gets better, and that management will be key to the survival of both oysters and oyster farms.

“Oysters are expected to do better if provided with unlimited resources, but we don’t know if that will be the case in the wild under climate change,” Cheng said. “So while there’s evidence they could do better, by no means is it a slam dunk. Other aspects of climate change, such as ocean acidification, may continue to be detrimental to oysters.”


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Ancient Mariner
October 10, 2016 12:51 am

I love oysters! Too bad climate change is too slow to make any noticeable changes in my lifetime.

Reply to  Ancient Mariner
October 10, 2016 3:32 am

Seems that the main predator for oysters to worry about is Californians !
Imagine a creature powerful enough to rip off you armour, stabbing and tearing you muscles apart in the process. Having ripped you from your shell he then throws you into a pit of hydrochloric acid which rots burns your living tissue.
Come back, oh merciful oyster drills. Slay me now !

Walter Sobchak
Reply to  Greg
October 10, 2016 9:34 am

Tabasco sauce does not contain hydrochloric acid.

Reply to  Greg
October 10, 2016 9:44 am

Your stomach does.

george e. smith
Reply to  Ancient Mariner
October 11, 2016 9:06 am

Oysters share a property with escargot, and Dungeness crabs.
None of them are worth the trouble. Oysters and escargot, can be enjoyed for a tiny fraction of the cost. You just make up the garlic butter, and eat it with a spoon, and leave the snail or oyster completely out of it; they add nothing of any redeeming social value.
The Dungeness crabs, are best if you can find an empty shell that is in good condition, so you can hang it on the wall.
It isn’t worth trying to get the muck inside out without damaging the shell.
Now New Zealand Green Shelled Mussels; There is a delicacy to die for. Once you try them, you will never ever order those black Prince Edward Island fish bait things again. and at virtually any sea food place the NZ ones and the PEI ones are exactly the same price. Totally ridiculous.

Brian H
Reply to  Ancient Mariner
October 11, 2016 11:25 pm

They’ll fare fairly well, no fear.

October 10, 2016 1:49 am

What sort of scientist works under the assumption that sea levels and temps – which have been up and down like Berlusconi’s trousers all through the Holocene – are now going just the one way?
That’s a rhetorical question, by the way.

Joel O’Bryan
Reply to  mosomoso
October 10, 2016 8:32 am

With this audience at WUWT, Bill Clinton would have been a better analogy than Berlusconi.

Tom Halla
October 10, 2016 2:14 am

The question should be how do oyster drills do relative to oysters, not just how oysters do.

October 10, 2016 2:33 am

Another model based on a model.

October 10, 2016 3:00 am

It´s certainly not a failure to care about the effects of global warming. But it would be better to concentrate on the causes of global warming. And the main reason for global warming is overpopulation.
This causes also some other problems like mass extinction of animal species, increasing difficulties to supply enough water and food, increased emergence of new epidemics and pandemics, elevated crime rate, and so on. If we were able to solve the main problem overpopulation, this further mentioned problems would be automatically solved too.
I am ready to help.

Bruce Cobb
Reply to  entrance
October 10, 2016 5:27 am

You are delusional. Global warming is not a “problem”, not is “overpopulation”, or “mass extinction”. If you really want to help, educate yourself. Otherwise, shut up.

Steve Case
Reply to  Bruce Cobb
October 10, 2016 6:14 am

Bruce Cobb … at 5:27 am
…Global warming is not a “problem”…

B I N G O !

Walter Sobchak
Reply to  entrance
October 10, 2016 9:35 am


Walter Sobchak
Reply to  Walter Sobchak
October 10, 2016 12:13 pm

What I was saying is that the concern with over population is a concern that there are too many children being born who are not of European decent. It is the tell that many, if not most, “environmentalists” are motivated by racism, and that “environmentalism”, is the last socially acceptable form of racism. Perhaps I was too telegraphic.

Reply to  entrance
October 10, 2016 11:59 am

Population is not a problem. Population also naturally levels out hand-in-hand with health, wealth and prosperity. Fossil fuels, being cheap and abundant, have done more for leveling out population growth than anything else on the planet (if that’s something you worry about).
Added to that the fact that civilization’s “exhaust”, which is CO2, is feeding nature, we were all doing very well for ourselves AND the planet until the civilization-and-human haters decided to get together and panic over a contrived catastrophe.

Reply to  entrance
October 10, 2016 2:23 pm

“I am ready to help” “solve the main problem overpopulation”.
We are, according to the demographers, not at the point of “peak humans” yet, but it’s in sight, and a decline is expected to follow. So there is no need to “solve” the problem by reducing birthrate, that’s already been dealt with. So you must be proposing to solve the problem at the other end, by increasing the death rate. Increasing the cost of fuel would be a good way to do that; increasing the cost of food would be another. Oh wait, other people are already on to that.
So you must be planning something else. Perhaps you should get legal advice about what means of increasing the death rate are socially acceptable.

george e. smith
Reply to  entrance
October 11, 2016 10:19 am

Then why not consider yourself a prime example of the overpopulation, and become a candidate for the soylent green factory.
The megatonnage of termites and ants, far exceeds that of humans. So does their effect on the climate.

Reply to  entrance
October 11, 2016 2:12 pm

There is no global warming and the world is no where close to being over populated.
There is no mass extinction event.
The only place where food and water are hard to get is where governments have made them hard to get.
The only place where new epidemics are a problem are where the local government makes it difficult to fight them.
There hasn’t been a pandemic in 100 years.
The only place where crime is rising is where the local governments are making it hard for the police to do their jobs.
If you want to help, you can start by making sure you are no longer part of the problem. Bye.

October 10, 2016 3:26 am

3rd line: “fare”, not “fair”

Reply to  rogerknights
October 10, 2016 6:28 am

Exactly. I don’t think it’s Anthony’s mistake. It looks like a press release. It was probably written by someone with a college degree … maybe in Women’s Studies.
fare vs. fair

Reply to  commieBob
October 10, 2016 7:32 am

Besides, it is the illegal alien voters (er, oysters) that I am concerned about.
Then again, Obola will be registering even more illegal alien oysters if he thought they could vote for Hillary.

george e. smith
Reply to  commieBob
October 11, 2016 10:22 am

More likely in “Social Justice” or “Ethnic Studies” more commonly referred to as “Racism.”
Well then there is “Political Science” if you collect Oxymorons; or just morons themselves.

October 10, 2016 3:34 am

journal Functional Ecology : at last, a journal not dedicated to Dysfunctional Ecology

October 10, 2016 3:39 am

Cliff Mass has written about oysters …
EPA Takes on the Oyster/Acidification Scaremongers
Ocean Acidification and Northwest Shellfish: Did the Seattle Times Get the Story Right?

October 10, 2016 4:09 am

I always knew this was a shell game.

Reply to  ClimateOtter
October 10, 2016 4:42 am

They are shell shocked. Need more meds.

Joel O'Bryan
Reply to  emsnews
October 10, 2016 8:10 am

They took a real shell-lacking.

James Bull
Reply to  emsnews
October 10, 2016 11:40 pm

I’d shell out for some better comments.
James Bull

george e. smith
Reply to  ClimateOtter
October 11, 2016 10:35 am

What the hell is the good of taking a perfectly edible mollusk, even a totally tasteless one, and cracking it open, and then tossing it down the hatch so it doesn’t even touch anything until it hits your epiglottis.
It is your tongue and your nose that tastes your food, not your bellybutton.
Yes even the ketchup tastes better; same as the garlic butter. Why use a slippery mollusk to sponge up Tomato sauce and garlic butter.
Now if you want to cook them, then now you might be on to something.
I always ask for my NZ green shell mussels to be simply steamed. No broth, no garlic, no butter, no lemon; just the steam. My local fishmongery knows to get the steam ready when they see me come in.
Those Step-and-fetchits that put out trays of NZGSMs, are gonna lose money heavily, when I come in for dinner. I know I have eaten three dozen at a sitting, but of late they have been getting somewhat bigger, so two dozen is about my limit now.
Unfortunately the all-you-can-eat places, like to goop the mussels up with all kinds of bric-a brac that has nothing to do with shellfish. And they thing three of them is some kind of feast.

October 10, 2016 5:05 am

A changing climate (cooler or warmer) would have many effects on a number of plant and animal species, just as it has for millennia. Migratory patterns change, growing seasons change or move, etc.
I suppose there is grant money just waiting for enterprising researchers regarding the effects of “climate change” on nearly every species of plants or animals on the planet.
The world is their oyster.

October 10, 2016 5:37 am

Gotta throw Ocean Acidification in there. Has someone done the calculation of how much the ph would have to change in the pacific NW to affect oysters? Also, off topic slightly, I just noticed the ENSO meter toward the bottom of the WUWT home page slipped into the La Niña range. First time in a while!

Ian L. McQueen
Reply to  chilemike
October 10, 2016 9:51 am

I came across when looking for something else. It’s well worth a look. This is part 2; parts 1 and 3 are also well worth a look, too.
Ian M

October 10, 2016 5:47 am

Oysters are a pretty ancient life form, if the fossil record is any indication. If they can get some relatively unpolluted water they can grow in many different climate scenarios just fine.

Reply to  hunter
October 10, 2016 6:55 am

Yes, it depends on the species too. Ever eat an oyster from the Gulf of Mexico? They are a tad large for my taste, and by large I mean the size of a small saucer sometimes. They do well in those ‘pristine’ waters.

george e. smith
Reply to  chilemike
October 12, 2016 3:40 pm

The shell or the oyster is dinner plate size ??

Reply to  hunter
October 10, 2016 12:01 pm

Oysters allowed to reach old age can be quite large, no matter where they’re from.
There are smaller species with limited size.
Oysters are filter feeders and quite efficient. So long as the ‘pollution’ is organic in origin, oysters will chow down.
I was reading about the late Marty Feldman a couple of days ago. Marty and another co-star both caught illnesses from eating shellfish in Mexico City. Marty died from a massive heart attack brought on by the illness.
Some of my co-workers attended a conference in Mexico City. When they got back, one co worker related to me, tales about the large luscious oysters that could be ordered at the restaurants.
This particular co-worker was old-school Polish in matters masticatory; e.g. potato pierogis, kopytka and kluski with chicken. Also called just plain meat and potatoes kind of guy.
Anyway, when the waiter tried to get him to also order oysters, he inquired where the oysters were harvested.
“Why, right offshore in XX bay” replied the waiter.
XX bay just happened to be where a lot of raw sewage was pumped. Of course, the oysters were large plump and juicy.
Another conference attending co-worker who loved the oysters got sick a few weeks later; and based on yellowing of his eyeballs, was tested for hepatitis by the Doc. The test came back positive; and any co-workers who came into contact with him, also visited a doctor for their own personal shots.
When visiting some countries, France, Belgium, Sweden, England, etc. I was happily adventurous at mealtimes. When visiting less well developed countries; well, I like Coca Cola or Pepsi, along with wine and beer, the old water sterilization methods. Yay food grade ethanol! I ate a bucket of mussels in white wine in Belgium and smoked mussels in Paris.

Paul Westhaver
October 10, 2016 7:00 am

So why the hate of oyster drills. I like them. They are an awesome creature themselves. Sure oyster and clam fisherman hate them, but that is because they are competing with them for oysters and clams!! Otherwise who would care?

Joel O’Bryan
Reply to  Paul Westhaver
October 10, 2016 8:34 am

Apparently they can wreck havoc on corals as well.

Reply to  Paul Westhaver
October 10, 2016 12:04 pm

With a diet of oysters, one wonders why the snails aren’t harvested?

george e. smith
Reply to  ATheoK
October 12, 2016 3:43 pm

Prey always outnumber predators.

Reply to  ATheoK
October 13, 2016 2:36 pm

Perhaps I should rephrase the question as:
Why do we not turn the snails into our prey?
A Mollusca diet should make for tasty snails.

Hocus Locus
October 10, 2016 7:29 am

If they would thrive in warmer climate then Must. Vilify. Native. Oysters.
Oysters Bad! Black’n’Decker Snails good!
Protect the nasssty little snails, we must, my precious.
Oysters must take one for the team.

October 10, 2016 9:50 am

A effort was made to return oysters to a bay along the Northwest Coast several years ago. They started an oyster farm that basically replaced the oysters that had formerly bred wild in the bay. All was hunky dorry until some do-gooder envirowhiner decided that the small outboard motors used by the oyster farmers were bothering the seals that hung-out many yards away (basically not bothered by the motors; all witnesses said the seals were fine). The authorities forced the oyster farm to shut down altogether, putting them out of business and the ecological balance of that bay back into limbo, now lacking oysters again.

H. D. Hoese
Reply to  higley7
October 10, 2016 11:54 am

This may be the, or similar, case at the Point Reyes National Seashore, Drakes Bay and Estero, where I have eaten them. Not sure what happened, but I sent them some information. Currently there is a large attempt to restore reefs, many of which have been degraded by various factors (including lots natural). At least some cases have been an excuse to put them where they either historically don’t or can’t currently occur. Reasons are given for sequestration of nitrogen by the shells which do accumulate some when living. (Or the generic “ecosystem services”). Unfortunately, shells, especially in organic sediments which are actually really acidic, mostly have a short shelf life or we would have estuaries clogged by them. The road to oyster survival is paved with good intentions, but too often lousy science from either inherent bias or lack of homework.
Three examples looking at the problem
Powell, E. N. and J. M. Klinck. 2007. Is oyster shell a sustainable estuarine resource. J. Shellfish. Res. 26(1):181-194.
Powell, E. N, J. N. Kraeuter, and K. A. Ashton-Alcox. 2006. How long does oyster shell last on an oyster reef? Est., Coast. Shelf Sci. 69:531-542.
Waldbrusser, G. C., R. A. Steenson and M. a. Green. 2011. Oyster shell dissolution rates in estuarine waters: effects of pH and shell legacy. J. Shellfish Res. 30(3):659-669.
We, with some difficulty, published a paper (Loftin, L. B., H. D. Hoese, and M. A. Konikoff. 2011. Will overfishing and proposed Mississippi River diversions imperil Louisiana oyster fisheries: commentary and review. Gulf of Mex. Sci. (1):1-12. ) partly devoted to a paper predicting doom to the U. S. East and West Coast and E Australian fisheries which, along with another one, was full of errors. We only analyzed the U. S. Gulf and East Coast, but the others with different oysters and conditions probably had similar biases. Our paper got a quick response from one in the Royal Academy of London of all places (zu Ermgessen, P. S. E., M. D. Spalding, B. Blake, L. D. Coen, B. Dumbauld, S. Geiger, J. H. Grabowski, R. Grizzle, M. Luckenbach, K. McGraw, W. Rodney, J. L. Ruesink, S. P. Powers, and R. D. Brumbaugh. 2012. Historical ecology with real numbers: past and present extent and biomass of an imperilled estuarine habitat. Proc. Roy. Soc. B. 279:3393-3400.), which stated that we (along with two independent other papers) were “skeptics” and “we seek to end the debate.” Not completely sure what they were talking about, but probably the reef “crisis,” which has some basis, but they failed to realize the complications like production (note not in their title) versus biomass and the conservation (or lack thereof) of mass. Not sure we are up to the hassle to respond, especially to a journal that allows such language. Well, it is at least a compliment to be called a skeptic.
Oysters are probably still the most researched marine animal, but still a long ways to go.
Nothing new about changing climate
Collier, A. 1954. A study of the response of oysters to temperature, and some long range ecological interpretations. Conv. Add. Natl. Shellfish. Assoc.(1953):13-38.
Collier was the first (barely) to discover a disease that often killed more adult oysters than all other causes together. He lived almost to 99 and was concerned about policy makers that asked for information, then ignored it. Nowadays they either often don’t even ask or only of those that give the proper answer. .

October 11, 2016 2:07 pm

“may continue to be detrimental to oysters”
They haven’t demonstrated that “acidification” of the oceans is detrimental in the first place.

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