The Life In An Oyster

This is a repost from Loam Magazine, an environmental arts media company. I wrote a piece for them that was published on May 23, which you can view here. That piece is also copied below. Enjoy!

I remember the unexpectedness most. After spending almost every summer of my childhood exploring the rocky coastline of Maine and Nova Scotia, I thought I understood my relationship to the ocean. It was a place of immense beauty, mysterious creatures of all shapes and sizes, undiscovered frontiers, and in desperate need of protection.

But years later, as I discovered the muddy shores of the Puget Sound in between classes, I stumbled on something. It was an oyster, but not like any I had ever seen. It was the length of my forearm, covered in a quilt of Christmas colored seaweeds and crawling life, it seemed strangely alone. This oyster didn’t seem to need protection from the likes of me or anyone else. It seemed like it had survived countless tribulations and had been there longer than anything. I needed to know its story.

It turned out that throughout the small, narrow inlet where this old oyster lived were oyster farms. These are marine farms, otherwise known as aquaculture. These oysters were cultivated from their free-swimming larval stage to about a year old, when they were harvested and brought to oyster bars, restaurants, and groceries throughout the world. At first, I was skeptical.

But when I spent time on some of these farms, I discovered beaches full of abundance. More like ranches than farms, the growing equipment and oysters seemed to attract unimaginable life and biodiversity. Eel like gunnels and hermit crabs hunkered down during the twice-daily low tides that exposed the mudflats. Enormous moon snails and sunflower stars lurked around sweet spots especially dense with shellfish, ready to feed with reckless abandon when the frigid estuary dutifully flooded the beach again.

As much life as was visible at low tide, lying dormant to avoid detection from curious seagulls flying overhead, what was most incredible was what these farms looked like underwater. A friend of mine found out by deploying underwater cameras, and we watched in amazement as flounder, seals, sea ducks, and even octopus came in droves to enjoy the buffet provided by the farm. It was a sight to see.

These commercial farms are home to hundreds of thousands of oysters and clams, each filtering dozens of nutrient rich gallons of water every day.

Whatever was in that water was in the oysters and clams too, and the farmers understood that better than anyone. Rain brought what’s known as nonpoint source pollution from throughout the watershed into the rivers that fed the Sound. From abandoned pet waste at local parks to over applied fertilizers and pesticides in people’s yards, the rain skimmed it all into streams, storm drains, and rivers that eventually made their way to these oyster farms.

It wasn’t environmentalists on the front lines of this challenge, lobbying for legislation and passing out pet waste bags. No, instead it was the oyster farmers – after all, their livelihoods were at stake.

Oysters could only be harvested from clean water. When water quality declined, the farms were closed and workers were sent home without pay. But when the water coming down the rivers was clean and the storm drains were dry, the water quality bounced back in just days. After all, the tides flushed water from the inlets to the Sound and into the Pacific twice a day. The oysters were usually safe to eat just days after that.

On the same beach I found that lone oyster, I worked with some college classmates to get necessary approvals and support to start an oyster farm. We realized there was no better way to galvanize support for keeping our water clean and beach protected than to involve the student body and the community. When we broke ground, curious students wandered down to the beach – many for the first time. As students from across the country and the world pulled on hip waders and rubber gloves and trudged through the campus’ temperate rainforest and down to the beach, they discovered what I discovered: oysters are life.

After months and months of farming those tidelands, both during warm summer days and frigid winter nights, we completed the farm to table cycle that has captured the hearts and souls of people all over the world for generations. We carefully and joyfully gathered as many oysters as we wanted, and we slurped the best oysters any of us had ever tasted. They were ours, and they were perfect.

To this day, I don’t know where that lone oyster came from, but I know where it took me. Years later, the school’s oyster farm is still there too. I don’t know the students tending to it now, but I do know how important they are. People protect what they care about, and care about what brings them joy and enlivens their senses. Even now, the first oyster I tasted from our garden keeps my fire lit.

As it turns out, those oysters don’t need our protection. But the water they live in does. So when you slurp your next oyster, thank the coalition of water protectors and oyster farmers who made it possible. And by all means – farm on.

The school referenced in this article is The Evergreen State College, and the oyster farm is called The Evergreen Shellfish Garden.

Standard

Environmentalism Beyond Climate Change

Human civilization has relied on the environment to provide food and water for tens of thousands of years. Time and time again, great empires have fallen because they’ve failed to steward their natural resources, making their societies vulnerable to climatic events like drought. Yes, a changing climate threatens the ecological balance that makes human life possible, but it’s not the only threat. As was said in Ulysses, “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” It’s about time we wake up.

Climate change skeptics often point out that Carbon Dioxide is not a pollutant – after all, how can the very act of breathing be pollution? While this argument is intentionally naive (moderation is key), it begs the question, “what is pollution?”. That question has been central to the environmental movement for decades. Environmentalists have worked to understand questions including what is pollution, who and what are affected by it, who is perpetrating it, and how can it be stopped? In the mid 20th century, these questions led to many successes.

Of course, there are still environmental groups working on specific pollution issues all across the world. But as climate change garners more and more encapsulating attention within the environmental movement, broader society is again neglecting environmental stewardship.

While labeling Carbon Dioxide as a pollutant, as the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency did, is a smart political maneuver – thus enabling it to be regulated by the same laws that regulate other pollutants – C02 isn’t inherently dangerous to the environment. Carbon Dioxide, along with other greenhouse gases, threaten the planet through what is projected to be a complicated series of events affecting sea levels, weather, and climate more broadly. These events are already in motion, and there’s no doubt the consequences will fundamentally change life as we know it. These changes will disproportionately harm the billions of people who live in poverty. These changes will inevitably reduce the carrying capacity of the planet for human population. And paradoxically, these changes will make humanity even more reliant on the environment.

As our freshwater resources and arable land become more scarce, we’ll need a healthy and resilient environment more than ever. Yet if our oceans are full of plastic and empty of life, if our rivers and streams are contaminated with heavy metals, if our soil is contaminated with pesticides, if our forests are clearcut – a changing climate will simply exacerbate the catastrophic effects of that ecological damage.

Increasingly, when politicians are asked about the environment, their answers are rudimentary. Democrats say climate change is a critically important issue that needs to be addressed with investment in alternative energy and regulations of fossil fuel industries. Republicans say the science on human caused climate change is unclear, and that the government needs to protect clean air and clean water (just don’t ask them to elaborate or act). But that’s it – there seems to be no more room for discussion, let alone innovative solutions.

While climate change has become a mostly partisan issue, most environmental issues are significantly more bi-partisan. Two thirds of American consumers have bought products because they are perceived to be better for the environment, significantly more than who believe in climate change. Nearly everyone wants clean air to breath, clean water to drink, open spaces to enjoy, and healthy food to feed their families. But burdensome regulations are unpopular – people want choice.

Most importantly, people who believe climate change is a hoax are largely entrenched in those views. By merging all environmental issues with climate change, that deeply held skepticism extends to all of those environmental issues too.

Most environmental issues are local and regional in nature, not global. These issues are easier to understand and easier to solve or prevent. By facing them head on, we can bring communities together. Often, these issues pit old world jobs (logging, hunting, mining, etc) against future prosperity. And they can be solved with sustainable economic development and grassroots activism. Over and over again, communities across the country, like Greensburg Kansas, have been reborn as a result of intense focus and dedication. Places like Bristol Bay in Alaska are the frontline, with massive corporate special interests leveraging their resources to mine precious minerals at the likely expense of fragile ecosystems that support eco-tourism and salmon fisheries. Battles like this have nothing to do with climate change, and they’re vitally important. 

If climate change is viewed and addressed as a distinct issue, requiring specific and large scale prevention and mitigation strategies, then there’s hope for addressing other environmental issues too. But if we continue to view climate change as the ultimate environmental issue, with all others secondary, then history’s nightmare will continue.

Standard

A Film Review of ‘The Fish On My Plate’

Documentaries are often created to advance an agenda. They feign objectivity, but it doesn’t take a discerning film critic to sniff out the slant.

Paul Greenberg has long been an earnest writer on seafood. He’s compelling because of his life story, his passion, and his non-idealogical point of view. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed his writings, and tonight, I enjoyed his new film produced by PBS Frontline: The Fish on my Plate.

He seems to ask a couple basic questions:

1. Is eating seafood good for one’s health?

2. Given global realities, can one eat seafood sustainably?

The premise of the film was that he would eat seafood every day for a year, and during that time, travel the world to investigate the seafood industry.

In the end, it seems that eating seafood every day for a year wasn’t a magic elixir for his health challenges. Predictably, he found that on balance, the global seafood industry is unsustainable. Predictably, he found that there are examples throughout the world where seafood is being caught and farmed sustainably.

For those who are familiar with the industry, there is nothing groundbreaking about this film. Yet what I appreciate about it is that acknowledges the complexity of the issue without disempowering consumers from making better choices.

His take aways aren’t presented as a doctrine or as hard and fast rules. Yet they are actionable.

1. Eat bivalves, particularly from North America

2. Eat kelp and other seaweeds, particularly from North America

3. Occasionally, eat wild alaskan salmon

4. Look for sustainably farmed fish like Arctic Char and Barramundi

Most of all, ask questions, advocate for the industry to keep improving, and connect with the marine resources that sustain us.

Also published at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/film-review-fish-my-plate-nate-bernitz.

Standard

Focus. Choose. Resist. Impact.

I’m just going to come out and say it: I did not and do not support the presidency of Donald Trump. So when I say that the Trump administration, with majorities in the senate and the house, is going to be able to successfully enact a wide range of policies that bring harm to the United States and its citizens, I express that as an opinion that’s founded on opinions founded on opinions. Okay, so that’s over with.

What comes next is based off the assumption that many of the Trump administration’s policies are bad, and that those opposed to them need to adopt winning strategies in opposition. If, conversely, you believe that the issue platforms expressed on whitehouse.gov will benefit the country, perhaps you can still glean value from this analysis of how to make a difference for what you believe in from a strategic perspective.

Continue reading

Standard

Holiday Season Reflections on Religion in our Lives

 

Every holiday season, I like to spend some time reflecting on the role of religion in our lives, and the role of religion in the United States.

During the presidential election – particularly the republican primary but also the general, there was a lot of talk about how and why evangelicals could support Donald Trump. On the surface, he appears to behave antithetically to Christian values, and by all accounts is not religious himself. Yet evangelicals supported him overwhelmingly, with 81% reporting a vote for the president elect.

I recently dug up an editorial published in The Seattle Times published in late September, which gave a fantastic overview of why evangelicals may support Trump. Preview – it has to do with biblical “end times”. What’s clear is that evangelicals have very different priorities than non-evangelicals – as voters and otherwise.

Most non-believers don’t realize how important religion is to many people of faith – particularly evangelicals, but not exclusively. Most evangelicals believe that the constitution doesn’t proclaim a separation between church and state, which is something non-believers take for granted as a fact. But in fact, that phrase isn’t in the First Amendment. The first amendment uses language that isn’t nearly as clear. Our third president, Thomas Jefferson, explained in 1802 that the first amendment intended to build “a wall of separation between Church and State.” Since then, the supreme court has used Jefferson’s explanation in that letter to the Danbury Baptists Association to interpret the first amendment. The relationship between religion (specifically Christianity) and government is one of the most divisive issues that is rarely discussed at a high level.

During the holidays in particular, it’s important that all Americans reflect on the role of religion in our own lives and in the lives of our fellow Americans. It may or may not be important to you, but it’s the most important issue for more than a third of registered voters. So be empathetic, to pursue understanding and to reflect.

“To be a person of faith is to have the world challenge that faith… The framers of our Constitution believed that if the people were to be sovereign and belong to different religions at the same time then our official religion would have to be no religion at all. It was a bold experiment then as it is now.. It wasn’t meant to make us comfortable, it was meant to make us free.” – Matthew Santos, Fictional Democratic Nominee For President, The West Wing
Standard

An Optimistic Path Forward On Environmental Policy During The Trump Presidency

In the wake of a sweeping electoral victory for President Elect Trump and the Republican Party, there’s been a range of reporting on the potential impact of a Trump presidency on the environment. Most journalism has focused on two things: parsing Trump’s campaign declarations, and the extent that the administration can undue the environmental legacy of President Obama. With the news that the President Elect’s daughter Ivanka wants to make climate change one of her signature issues, and her father’s meeting with former presidential nominee and global climate advocate Al Gore, there’s some reason for optimism. But despite the non-traditional campaign run by a non-traditional candidate, history can still be our teacher as we forecast and engage with what’s to come in the next 4 (or 8) years.

While Donald J. Trump is a unique political figure, historians have drawn comparisons to Andrew Jackson and Richard Nixon, among others. Despite Nixon’s tainted legacy, President Nixon, a republican, created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). He had an ambitious (if fiscally conservative) environmental agenda, and worked for clean air, clean water, protection of endangered species, and open spaces.

Ronald Reagan, a republican revered by the party to this day, had a well regarded record on environmental issues as Governor of California but a mixed record as president.

Like President Elect Trump, Reagan was not an outdoorsman or environmentalist. He famously said “trees cause more pollution than automobiles do,” and that if “you’ve seen one tree you’ve seen them all.” And like Trump is poised to do, Reagan appointed anti-environmental leaders to the Department of the Interior and the EPA. Reagan also fought congress to weaken pollution standards in the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, reduced federal funding for the EPA, opened up previously protected land to mineral exploration, and cut renewable energy programs.

But Reagan’s legacy on the environment was far from black and white. Reagan advocated for and ultimately signed the Montreal Protocol, an international accord to phase out ozone depleting chlorofluorocarbons. His administration also laid the groundwork for a cap and trade system to address acid rain, which was later successfully implemented by George H. Bush. He signed the Coastal Barrier Resources Act, which has been critical in protecting large portions of US coastlines from harmful development by taking away all federal funding and subsidies for such projects. Similarly, the 1985 Farm Bill took away subsidies for farmers who failed to comply with numerous conservation measures. Reagan also introduced an excise tax on diesel fuel sold in marine terminals, designated over 10 million acres of wilderness, and dedicated funding to improving national park facilities and access.

Today, many moderate republicans and conservatives are supportive of similar approaches to environmental policy. Consistent among Reagan’s work on the environment was to approach environmental problems from a market driven approach, as opposed to a regulatory approach.

Under a Trump presidency, like any modern day republican, there is no hope for liberal environmental policies such as a moratorium on production of any type of energy, carbon taxs, protecting biodiversity, and any other highly regulatory approaches. But there is hope for market-driven approaches such as making zero emissions energy production tax-free, replacing and improving the nation’s electrical transmission system, investing in nuclear fusion technology, eliminating natural resource giveaways on federal lands, phasing out big agricultural subsidies, promoting the military’s use of renewable energy and biofuel, supporting national clean car standards, expanding cap and trade policies, and addressing water security through investment in emergent technologies. These approaches will create jobs and protect national security while making significant strides for the environment.

Formerly called Republicans for Environmental Protection, ConservAmerica has a mission “to educate the public and elected officials on conservative approaches to today’s environmental, energy, and conservation challenges”. They remain an influential conservative lobby group with pro-environment positions on modern day topics including the Dakota Access Pipeline. E2 is a national, nonpartisan group that advocates for policies that are good for the economy and the environment. E2 has over 850 member businesses from every state in the country, and is a partner of the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the country’s most powerful environmental policy and law organizations.

Organizations including ConservAmerica, ClearPath, and E2 promote market-driven policies and approaches that environmental policy advisors like Ivanka Trump may advocate for. In contrast, most environmental organizations are gearing up for endless litigation and stonewalling while sticking to policies that have no hope of gaining traction under republican leadership. More Americans than ever believe that humans are contributing to climate change, and there’s near consensus amongst scientists that urgent action is needed. We can’t wait 4, or 8 years to get back to work. Environmental advocates need to stay at the negotiating table and recognize that action is still possible – progress is still possible. While President Obama faced consistent opposition to environmental policy, history suggests that President Elect Trump will enjoy a path of less resistance.


Also published at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/optimistic-path-forward-environmental-policy-from-trump-nate-bernitz?published=t

Standard

Could Shellfish Clean Up San Diego’s Mission Bay?

Oyster Bay, Washington State. Photo Credit: John Rowley, Taylor Shellfish Farms

Oyster Bay, Washington State. Photo Credit: Jon Rowley, Taylor Shellfish Farms

There’s a great irony to the connection between clean water and bivalve shellfish – oysters, mussels and clams in particular – they can only be safely eaten if they’re harvested from clean water. Chic raw bars are popping up in cities like Seattle, San Francisco and New York, but the oysters served on the half shell in waterfront restaurants don’t come from local bays. In all likelihood, they never will – shellfish, like most agricultural products, are grown and harvested in rural areas far from population centers.

Yet shellfish have proven to be a useful tool for water quality remediation in polluted bays along our coastlines. Unlike raising cows, planting wheat or growing lettuce, cultivating bivalve shellfish has environmental benefits: removing excess algae from the water, improving water clarity, supporting eelgrass beds and providing habitat for diverse ecosystems.

New York City and Oyster Restoration

New York City is leading the way in utilizing shellfish to improve local water quality. The New York Harbor Foundation has launched an exciting and ambitious project called the Billion Oyster Project in the former “Oyster Capitol of the World”. This project was developed to restore New York Harbor’s marine ecosystem and to provide educational opportunities for local middle and high school students. Other organizations and companies are pursuing initiatives as well, such as the New York/New Jersey Baykeepers, an ecological advocacy NGO.

A Vision of a Revitalized New York Harbor (SCAPE / LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE PLLC)

A Vision of a Revitalized New York Harbor (SCAPE / LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE PLLC)

Especially after the devastating impacts of Hurricane Katrina, the idea of restoring oyster reefs into New York Harbor gained traction. The New York Times in particular has repeatedly reported on the mitigating potential of oysters to absorb the wave energy of storms like Hurricane Katrina. Oysters grow generationally in reef like structures, with the living generation on top of the reef. New York Harbor has supported natural oyster reefs in the past, and only lost them because of over-harvesting and pollution. Oysters can’t be grown everywhere, but they can be grown in New York Harbor – it’s been done before.

San Diego

I’m a newcomer to San Diego, but in just a few months, I’ve picked up on a few things. First, local residents are prideful about our coastline; a number of environmental advocacy organizations work on coastline conservation issues. Unlike New York Harbor, San Diegans spend a lot of time in the water. Second, the US Navy and maritime heritage and technology are a deeply embedded and important part of the area’s culture. Third and finally, San Diego and its residents are open to new ideas. San Diego is home to the largest naval base in the Pacific, the largest desalination plant in the country and a booming maritime technology industry.

San Diego is also home to one of the West Coast’s largest aquatic parks: Sea World. Mission Bay in particular is an area of concern for local residents and the City of San Diego. Mission Bay is listed as an impaired body of water due to high levels of coliform bacteria, caused by urban runoff and exacerbated by limited exchange with the Pacific Ocean. Not only can shellfish from the saltwater lagoon not be consumed safely, but the public’s use of the bay for recreational activities is at times limited.

Shellfish are not just used for restoration, as in New York Harbor. In Washington State’s Puget Sound, NGOs like the Pacific Shellfish Institute have experimented with cultivating mussels in working waterfronts with similar water quality challenges. Unlike oysters, mussels are grown suspended in the water column. This method allows them to be grown where they are needed, such as sources of freshwater bringing excess nutrients and waste into the bay.

Mussels, like oysters, filter water to consume algae. Some species of mussels prefer the strong currents and high salinity of the ocean, while others prefer the calmer and more brackish water found in places like Puget Sound and Mission Bay. Mussels would grow well in Mission Bay, and they would certainly have a positive impact on the health of the bay.

Implementation

Using shellfish for water quality mitigation is not an industry standard practice, and still needs research and experimentation in order to use it as a strategy of scale. In the case of Mission Bay, an organization like Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute would be an intriguing partner. As the research arm of SeaWorld, they have a vested interest in Mission Bay; they also are pursuing large-scale commercial aquaculture ventures in partnership with Rose Canyon Fisheries offshore of San Diego’s coast, and using aquaculture for environmental remediation is a complementary practice to commercial aquaculture.

Don Kent, president of Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute, stand next to tanks holding yellowtail. The institute is working on a proposal for an open-ocean fish farm in the ocean off San Diego. | Photo Credit: Photo by K.C. Alfred/UT San Diego/Copyright 2015

Don Kent, president of Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute, stand next to tanks holding yellowtail. The institute is working on a proposal for an open-ocean fish farm in the ocean off San Diego. | Photo Credit: Photo by K.C. Alfred/UT San Diego/Copyright 2015

One of the primary limiting factors may be access to shellfish “seed”, which are reared in hatcheries. There is more demand than supply for shellfish larvae, and an institution like Hubbs would likely have to either partner with an existing hatchery or expand their own operations. Funding is another limiting factor, but the aquaculture industry and government entities have proven to be willing funders of this type of work. Finally, permitting may be a significant challenge, and is also the biggest unknown. This type of project would require a public/private partnership between the City of San Diego, State of California and SeaWorld. Particularly at the state level, there has been hesitancy to award usage permits for aquaculture ventures. However, as a non-commercial venture, this project may gain traction with state permitters, whose directive is environmental resources management. Finally, an issue that has been a sticking point in the past has been restricting access to the shellfish installations, which would not be deemed safe for consumption. San Diego’s waterfront is owned and managed by a diverse set of organizations, from the US Navy to the State of California and private entities. It would be critical for public access to be restricted, and partnering the with the Navy or private entities would be prudent.

While you likely won’t be able to see the bay where your oysters came from as you’re slurping them down on your city’s waterfront, why not let shellfish clean up the bay instead? Let’s slurp our oysters and let them filter, too.

Correction: This article was corrected to clarify that SeaWorld is not the biggest polluter in Mission Bay. However, there have been accusations made against SeaWorld that are noteworthy, including repeated violations of the company’s discharge permits.

Update: Since writing this article, I’ve become aware of existing efforts to use shellfish for bioremediation in San Diego, including plans for Mission Bay. I’ve also learned about upstart shellfish bioremediation projects elsewhere in Southern California.

Update: Since writing this article, I’ve learned that Carlsbad Aquafarms has a small shellfish hatchery, which could be another potential source of seed for a local shellfish bioremediation project.

Standard