I’ll Have the Oyster, But Hold the Shell

Did you know that 85% of the world’s oyster reefs are gone?

That’s not a typo. According to a new paper in Bioscience by scientists from The Nature Conservancy and nine other institutions, oyster reefs worldwide have deteriorated over the last century to the verge of disappearance.

I confess to being more of a fish n’ chips kind of girl rather than the half-shell, but this is still bad news for me — and for all of us. Why? Because oyster reefs give back in more ways than just shellfish.

  • They protect shorelines from storms,
  • they filter a mind boggling amount of water every day, and
  • they offer innumerable tiny places for growing marine life – like those fish I love to eat – to hide from predators.

So where’d they go? The big culprit, according to Conservancy shellfish expert and senior marine scientist Mike Beck, is destructive fishing practices that damage reefs. These impacts have been made worse by pollution and disease in our bays and estuaries, and by the practice of managing reefs almost exclusively as a fishery, not for their habitat value to people and critters.

“In healthy and intact reefs, new oysters are built – literally – on the backs of previous generations,” says Beck. “When you take away the shells, you take away the structure of the reef.”

So are oysters doomed? No, says Beck. But saving them will require a change in reef management practices — from food first and only to food and conservation and restoration.

That change is already happening around the coastal United States. Beck and others routinely splash around the shallows building oyster reefs out of concrete castle-like blocks, mesh bags filled with surf clam shells and even wire frames filled with oyster shells. In fact, thousands of volunteers recently spent two days in the Gulf doing just that.

Why? Baby oysters need something to stick to in order to grow. And because they can actually smell shell and settle on it, the quirky tools listed above offer the right surface and texture, creating a foundation from which new reefs can grow.

Want to dive in further? Here’s the paper. I recommend reading it over a plate of…well, you know.

While you’re at it check out this video on the importance of restoring oyster reefs in the Gulf of Mexico:

Image: Oyster restoration at Coffee Island in Mobile Bay. Image credit: © Beth Maynor Young 2010

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.

Add a Comment