Aquaculture Science Hub

Conservation Aquaculture as a Tool for Imperiled Marine Species

Evaluation of Opportunities and Risks for Olympia Oysters, Ostrea Lurida

A man bends down to hold an oyster bag above the water.
West Coast Oysters Baywater Shellfish Co., nestled in the idyllic setting of Thorndyke Bay and the northern Hood Canal in Washington state. © Hannah Letinich

Ridlon, A.D., Wasson, K., Waters, T., Adams, J., Donatuto, J., Fleener, G., Froehlich, H., Govender, R., Kornbluth, A., Lorda, J., Peabody, B., Pinchot IV, G., Rumrill, S.S., Tobin, E., Zabin, C.J., Zacherl, D., Grosholz, E.D., 2021. Conservation aquaculture as a tool for imperiled marine species: Evaluation of opportunities and risks for Olympia oysters, Ostrea lurida. PLOS ONE 16, e0252810. 

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Abstract: Conservation aquaculture is becoming an important tool to support the recovery of declining marine species and meet human needs. However, this tool comes with risks as well as rewards, which must be assessed to guide aquaculture activities and recovery efforts. Olympia oysters (Ostrea lurida) provide key ecosystem functions and services along the west coast of North America, but populations have declined to the point of local extinction in some estuaries.

Here, we present a species-level, range-wide approach to strategically planning the use of aquaculture to promote recovery of Olympia oysters. We identified 12 benefits of culturing Olympia oysters, including identifying climate-resilient phenotypes that add diversity to growers’ portfolios. We also identified 11 key risks, including potential negative ecological and genetic consequences associated with the transfer of hatchery-raised oysters into wild populations.

Informed by these trade-offs, we identified ten priority estuaries where aquaculture is most likely to benefit Olympia oyster recovery. The two highest scoring estuaries have isolated populations with extreme recruitment limitation—issues that can be addressed via aquaculture if hatchery capacity is expanded in priority areas. By integrating social criteria, we evaluated which project types would likely meet the goals of local stakeholders in each estuary. Community restoration was most broadly suited to the priority areas, with limited commercial aquaculture and no current community harvest of the species, although this is a future stakeholder goal.

The framework we developed to evaluate aquaculture as a tool to support species recovery is transferable to other systems and species globally; we provide a guide to prioritizing local knowledge and developing recommendations for implementation by using transparent criteria. Our collaborative process engaging diverse stakeholders including managers, scientists, Indigenous Tribal representatives, and shellfish growers can be used elsewhere to seek win-win opportunities to expand conservation aquaculture where benefits are maximized for both people and imperiled species.