Journalist Summer Brennan discusses oysters, changing climate, and the future of sustainable farming


Summer Brennan is an author and journalist who is occasionally based in Brooklyn and occasionally based in Point Reyes, California. She is currently finishing writing The Oyster War, a book on oysters, wilderness, food and the environment.

The book focuses on a specific dispute between a family of oyster farmers from Northern California and the U.S. Government, but it broadly explores the future of sustainable farming in a world where natural resources are diminishing.

I spoke with Brennan, who is running a crowd-funding campaign to help her complete her research, about oysters, diminishing resources, and why she thinks there is still hope for everybody’s favorite artisanal mollusk.

Your book details on an ongoing dispute between an oyster farm and the U.S. government, but it is also focuses on a larger question. Can you talk a bit about that?

I am examining how oyster farming has been impacted by rising ocean acidification and everything that is occurring alongside that, but for me the larger question is about how we deal with wilderness preservation when our wild spaces are shrinking. It is also about considering how we have preserved wilderness and how that has changed over the past 50 years.

I am curious about why this is the topic you decided to write a book about. What did you find resonant about this story in particular?

The story I focus on is, for both sides, about much more than farming and a dispute over the use of federal lands. It speaks strongly to anxieties about diminishing natural areas and diminishing small family agriculture in general. Those are definitely threatened at this point and people want to hold on to what they have left of those things. It is very difficult to run a family farming operation. Recent articles have indicated that for all of the press oysters are getting for their artisanal value, many traditional family farms are operating at a loss. So the issues on either side are very important and that drew me in.

You have mentioned the degradation of environmental resources several times. What is causing this degradation, which ultimately leads to disputes over land and access?

Sprawl is one factor. We are used to having decentralized lives. We are a car culture and we are used to driving long distances. In doing so, we are taking over and developing natural areas. In the past 20 years, I have seen areas in the Bay Area that were once made up of fields and barns become suburban. That is not a new story, but it is happening everywhere and places that are not protected face development. Even waterways, which are protected, face pollution from runoff. Roads and towns also bisect otherwise protected areas, and researchers are finding that species are lost by these divisions of habitat. Ecosystems become disturbed by these shifts.

Shifting temperatures, even by only a little bit, also make a huge impact. Oysters are a very interesting to look at from a climate perspective, as they are seen as the canary in the coal mine. Just enough of a change that goes unperceived by people can mean the death of an entire species that dwell on a shoreline. Rises in water temperature can also mean the difference between whether or not oysters can be produced, and rises in acidification create conditions where their shells can no longer calcify. It is not just oysters that this affects—other shell-forming sea life is affected—but it is particularly noticeable in oysters.

So how are oysters holding up at present?

Most people in the oyster industry are very aware of what is going on. Acidification is happening right now and oyster companies in California are losing up to 40 percent of their crops per year to this problem. It is already affecting them. The governor of Washington state, Jay Inslee, is building a whole campaign around this problem because oysters are such an important part of his state’s economy. They are very aware that if they don’t do something very soon, they will be in trouble. The oysters will stop growing, which has certainly happened in lots of waterways around the country. There used to be lots of oysters in San Francisco and New York bay, but they won’t grow there anymore, and the fact that this problem is reaching rural areas is all the more frightening. Oysters were all up and down the Hudson and East rivers but now of course there aren’t any. The story in San Francisco is a little more complicated, and I go into it in the book, but pollution killed them all off.

Scientists, though, are trying to rebuild oyster reefs. They are doing this both in San Francisco and New York, and they are doing this because oysters filter the water. By having them in the water, they are meant to filter and restore the habitat and waterways for both the oysters and other life that is presently unable to live there.

So there may be some hope?

Resultant battles over waterways and space have been damaging and sometimes toxic, but I really want to focus on where there is hope. For the project I am raising funds for, I have been invited to visit oyster farms throughout the country to see the work that is being done. Many of these farms are partnering with biologists to monitor acidity levels in the water and other potentially detrimental elements. These are really great partnerships and so I would love to see these places and feature them in the book. It is a very important, optimistic story. We hear about all of these catastrophic things that are happening to the environment, and so when there is an opportunity to highlight places where there is hope of cleaning of the mess, I want to do that.

I have spoken with biologists working in San Francisco Bay and the plans that these scientists have put forward are getting positive results. I am going to be attending New York Oyster Week, an event in New York City in a couple weeks. They are part of something called the Billion Oyster Project, which is working on restoration, and they really do see the possibility of cleaning waterways. Urban centers in Stockholm and Sweden are so clean in the city centers that people fish and swim in them. I would like to think that 100 years from now, if we are successful in these types of programs, people will be able to do that in waterways around American cities.

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.