For a restauranteur and fishmonger like me, there's no greater nightmare than serving unsafe food to our customers.
That nightmare was our reality just a few months ago, when record-shattering temperatures created ideal conditions for Vibrio bacteria to flourish. Vibrio accumulates in shellfish which, when consumed by humans, can induce a nasty illness known as vibriosis. Despite our strict adherence to food safety guidelines, several of our customers reported vibriosis diagnoses, as did customers of many other restaurants.
These outbreaks, and the heat wave that caused them, are irrefutably the direct result of climate change. And without immediate, dramatic action, more frequent foodborne illness is just one of many future threats to Oregon's seafood industry.
This issue isn't just important to me — it's important to other Oregonians too, as a recent poll conducted by The Nature Conservancy clearly illustrates. When asked about the Build Back Better legislation, an overwhelming number of bipartisan voters in Oregon's 5th Congressional District said that climate change-related policies in the bill were "very important."
It's easy to see why. That same heat wave killed approximately a billion sea creatures, including farmed oysters, clams, mussels, and scallops. Some growers lost the entire years' crop, a financially devastating prospect after an already difficult year of pandemic-related market volatility.
Sustained, triple-digit temperatures harm humans too, especially people like shellfish growers who work outdoors. According to the CDC, people employed in the fishing, farming, forestry, and hunting industries account for a quarter of all heat-related deaths in the United States.
By some estimates, severe heat waves will be as much as seven times more likely in the next three decades. Our infrastructure simply isn't built to withstand this kind of heat, a fact that, if unaddressed, could test our entire food system. Some parts of the Pacific Northwest were so hot that roads melted and buckled, making them unsafe for driving. The power grid, taxed by overheated transformers and an uptick in air conditioning use, didn't fare much better. For the food system, blackouts can shut down processing plants and refrigeration, ultimately resulting in food waste and shortages.
Heat is by far not the only issues affecting the shellfish industry. Higher levels of carbon dioxide have made our oceans more acidic, preventing shellfish from growing and maintaining their shells. On top of that, rising sea levels, shifting precipitation patterns, and wildfires are altering water salinity and fostering the growth of algal blooms, both of which can increase shellfish mortality.
In the absence of aggressive efforts to decarbonize the economy and build resilience to weather extremes, all of these problems will assuredly get much, much worse, at an unacceptably high cost. Our seafood industry creates thousands of jobs, contributes to local and regional economies, drives tourism, and provides a sustainable protein source. These are things we cannot afford to lose — and we don't have to if Congress acts quickly.
Right now, our lawmakers have the rare opportunity to protect our oceans and everyone who depends on them with the infrastructure and reconciliation bills. Together, these pieces of legislation would expedite the transition to clean energy, incentivize climate smart agriculture and forestry, and fortify communities most vulnerable to climate impacts. These initiatives are popular with Oregon voters; in The Nature Conservancy poll, the vast majority of respondents said improving forest management (89%), upgrading emergency preparedness (85%), and reducing carbon emissions (69%) are very important to them, and more than six in ten said they want bold climate action now.
By making the largest ever investment in climate solutions in U.S. history, these bills would be a big step towards halving our carbon emissions by 2030 and preparing our infrastructure for the challenges ahead — the absolute bare minimum we must do to prevent the most destructive effects of climate change.
This is an opportunity we can't miss. To ensure a prosperous seafood industry, vibrant coastal communities, and a safe and ample food supply for years to come, our lawmakers must come together to invest in meaningful climate solutions today.
Lyf Gildersleeve owns Portland's Flying Fish Co. He is a second-generation fishmonger and a member of the Shellfish Growers Climate Coalition.
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