‘A forest fire in Puget Sound’: Heat wave bakes Washington shellfish industry

PUGET SOUND, Wash. — As the record-setting temperatures hit the Pacific Northwest last week, tens of thousands of locals were seeking shelter from the heat. Over at Hama Hama’s clam beds in Lilliwaup, Washington the farm manager was simply trying to understand what he was seeing with his own eyes.

“The clams were popping up, it looked like they were steamed open,” explained Adam James, a fifth-generation farmer at the Hama Hama Company.

James understood what was happening to a degree; in fact, he and his co-workers had been bracing for the worst days ahead of time. They knew unseasonably warm temps were coming, and worst of all they were timing out with a rare, extremely low tide meaning a good chunk of their shellfish farming operation in the Hood Canal region would be both uncovered and fully exposed to the deadly heat. That didn’t make the sight any less shocking.

“Each day just got worse and worse,” he said. “I’ve been the farm manager since 2006, and since that time it seems like we have more and more 100 year events. I had 10 years of happy farming, if you will, and now it’s just curveball after curveball.”

In recent years, shellfish farmers have seen their fair share of woes. From a business standpoint, they had to deal with COVID closures, before that a tariff battle and competition from other regions. From an ecological standpoint, they’ve dealt with harmful algal blooms, biotoxins, ocean acidification and weather extremes.

At Hama Hama, they don’t shy away from connecting the amplification of issues to climate change.

“We’re definitely in a position where we’re seeing it day-in and day-out,” said Justin Stang, the wholesale manager. “It’s becoming more problematic.”

As Stang explained, they made calculated decisions to get products to market quickly before the heat hit. They took precautions with the roughly 50 employees they had to ensure safety, but at the end of the day it’s becoming obvious that their business is quickly changing -- adaptation will be important for not only their business, but shellfish farmers across the Sound.

“There are a lot of farmers struggling right now that need a lot of help to keep their businesses going so that in 2022, and 2023 we can protect a food source.”

Climatologists tell KIRO 7 that the heat dome would have been bad on it’s own, but climate change made it that much worse. Nick Bond, the state’s climatologist said: “When we have an extreme event it’s that much more severe, we don’t think these weather patterns will come along more often, but it will be that much worse when they do.”

How much more often they come along may be key -- the latest climate assessment indicates that both the frequency and intensity of heat waves will increase.

As for farmers, there’s still questions beyond what caused this -- they’re stuck in a waiting game at the moment. Researchers are spreading out across Washington coastal cities when low tides are predicted to search for clues as to what happened, more information is needed to fully understand whether region, species, or any other factors dictated how the extreme heat affected various shellfish.

Teri King, with UW’s College of the Environment and Washington Sea Grant, said she’s getting reports from homeowners, farmers and tribal entities alike. Despite a long career working with shellfish, investigating the cause of mass mortality events this past week has been different.

“I was a little steeled for it, but when the pictures started coming in from the homeowners that report to our office, tribal folks sharing their data from their beaches,” she said before pausing. “It’s devastating. We had never experienced this before, so this wasn’t something we could prepare ourselves for.”

King noted beyond the large shellfish companies, there’s smaller paychecks to be made for individuals -- not to mention the cultural connections for local tribes.

Her team will be trying to figure out the full picture of the size and scope of what happened in the coming weeks, but it may be weeks until the full extent of the issues are known.

As for Hama Hama, their northern beaches may have been safe -- business continued as usual over the weekend, and as King described a few areas such as the Straits of Juan de Fuca may have been saved from the type of mass mortality event witnessed by dozens of shellfishers in other areas.

Adam James said these type of events may change the entire planning of operations -- how they may budget in the future with the expectation to lose as much as 30-percent of each crop.

It’s not the same as the business was decades earlier, and James -- who has been digging up clams since the 4th grade -- says he’s all too aware.

“The fact that we don’t have a term within our industry to describe that we’re seeing here. It’s sort of telling,” he said. “It’s like Teri said, a forest fire in our waters.”