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Obama oceans plan could boost state shellfish industry

In Washington, the top value shellfish is geoduck (above,) which is sold mostly overseas, followed by oysters, which can produce a crop in about 18 months, and then mussels and manilla clams. (AP Photo/File)

President Obama’s plan, announced this week, to protect U.S. oceans and coastal areas, could provide a big boost to farming in Washington. Seafood farming, that is.

The President, on Tuesday, declared the oceans are at risk from multiple threats. “Rising levels of carbon-dioxide are causing our oceans to acidify, pollution endangers sea life.” So he announced his National Ocean Policy, which includes strategies to bolster the shellfish aquaculture. Around the Northwest, that includes the farming of fish, mussels, geoducks, clams and oysters.

One goal is to encourage shellfish farming and cut into a huge seafood trade deficit, estimated at $8-10 billion.

“I think it can be done,” said Margaret Barrette, with the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association. Her organization represents 120 members large and small, mostly in Washington. “It will take some time and it will take a multifaceted approach, getting people to aim for fish that’s wild here naturally, in the states versus going for a cheaper alternative from overseas.”

Washington has about 300 shellfish farms but Barrette said a new farm has not opened in the last seven years.

“That’s because the permitting process is a bit cumbersome and has been gummed up,” said Barrette. “One of the things that President Obama’s announcement calls out for is actually looking at improving the permitting process, removing barriers in this process and encouraging shellfish farming to work toward [reducing] this seafood deficit.”

In Washington, the top value shellfish is geoduck, which is sold mostly overseas, followed by oysters, which can produce a crop in about 18 months, and then mussels and manilla clams.

Barrette is excited that Obama’s oceans initiative includes a strategic plan for aquaculture research and dealing with acidification, which impacts fish farms. Research can help develop oysters, for example, that are resistant to changes in ocean conditions, according to Barrette.

The public largely understands the health benefits of seafood and shellfish in their diet but there’s more, she argues. “It provides economic benefits for the community, it also provides habitat for other important species, like salmon and other forage fish and it cleans water.”

Washington aquaculture is a $100 million industry but Barrette claims farmers could sell 2-3 times the seafood they are producing.

“They are nowhere near meeting the demand for their product,” she said.

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