Oysters: A love story

Andrew Kornylak
© Andrew Kornylak

There’s a lot to love about oysters. And these hardworking bivalves could use the love.

By Jenn Greene, marine scientist

I’ll admit it - I’ve been in a love affair with oysters for nearly 20 years. When I am out in my adopted hometown of Mobile, Alabama, I get a little giddy when I see people enjoying locally farmed oysters. I find myself wanting to inspect the shapes of their little bodies and admire the perfection that is their shells.

I am equally thrilled when I see crusty clumps of thriving oysters attached to reefs and pilings along our bays and estuaries in the Gulf of Mexico. The reason is simple: In my two decades of work restoring shellfish, I’ve come to understand that these miraculous, hardworking little bivalves are crucial to the health of our oceans and coasts.

Hunter Nichols / The Nature Conservancy© Hunter Nichols

Did you know, for instance, that a healthy adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day, hungrily gobbling up microscopic algae and removing dirt and other pollutants from the water? All things being equal, that means cleaner water for everyone.

They can also protect us from storms. The tens of thousands of oyster shells that create the foundation of oyster reefs also form natural barriers that can help reduce storm waves and mitigate the effects of sea level rise. And it’s not just people who benefit from healthy oysters. Their reefs provide food and habitat for fish, birds and marine life like blue crab, shrimp and rockfish.

Clearly, there’s a lot to love about oysters. And these days, oysters really could use some love.

Clay Bolt / The Nature Conservancy© Clay Bolt

Factors like overharvesting, pollution, disease, drought and degraded habitat have made oyster reefs the single most imperiled marine habitat on the planet. In all, a staggering 85 percent of the Earth’s oyster reefs have been lost since the late 1800s. But there is good news.

All across North America, The Nature Conservancy and other organizations have revived oyster habitats through science-based restoration at multiple national sites, including San Francisco Bay, Washington’s Puget Sound, Chesapeake Bay, New York and along much of the Gulf Coast. What could be better than that?

In Chesapeake Bay, we recently completed the largest oyster restoration project on the planet—seeding more than 2 billion oysters in an area larger than the National Mall. And in Texas’ Matagorda Bay, we’ve restored 54 acres of Half Moon Reef, a historic, 400-acre underwater oyster colony, where initial monitoring reports show a staggering 850 percent increase in marine and plant life at the reef.

Erika Nortemann / The Nature Conservancy© Erika Nortemann

And it just keeps getting better. This February, a gift from Whole Foods Market will boost our efforts and help us spread the word about these unsung heroes of the sea. These types of projects are important work that I’m proud to be a part of. These mollusks are a marine biologist’s dream come true.In December 2015, Conservancy Research Fellow Dr. Philine zu Ermgassen published a paper in the Journal of Applied Ecology estimating that each acre of restored oyster reef in the Gulf of Mexico and the mid- and south Atlantic will provide an average of 3,544 extra pounds of fish per year. That’s more fish and shellfish than 240 adults would consume in one year! This data will help scientists set goals for restoration monitoring programs and help us communicate the value of restoring and conserving coastal habitats to coastal communities.

Clearly, the hardworking oyster is a species worth fighting for. I’m betting if more people knew about the many benefits that oysters provide, they’d fall in love with these beautiful bivalves, too.

If you want to learn more about The Nature Conservancy’s work with oysters, you can find videos and stories HERE.

Jenn Greene lives in Mobile, Alabama, and has served as a marine scientist for The Nature Conservancy since 2008. She is currently the strategy lead for Integrated Ocean and Coastal Management for the Conservancy’s North America Oceans and Coasts Program. Prior to working for the Conservancy, she managed a research program that included a focus on restoration science at the University of New Hampshire for nearly 10 years. Jenn holds a Master’s of Science in Zoology from the University of New Hampshire.

Tags: Conservation | Oceans

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