Speed shell shoveling at the Oyster Olympics

Will Murtha is a water policy associate for The Nature Conservancy.

Loyal followers of the Olympics likely missed the news that a team from The Nature Conservancy brought home a medal this summer (yes, it’s true — nature lovers can be athletic).

By Olympics, of course, I’m referring to the Oyster Olympics, held annually on the Chesapeake Bay by our friends at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Involving such events as speed shell shoveling (pictured above) and oyster cage wrestling, the 2nd annual games were held to educate and inspire the public to bring back the Chesapeake Bay oyster.

Over the course of a mild, grey day tailor-made for athletic endeavors, the Conservancy team competed fiercely with the best of the Bay, regularly proving its willingness to sacrifice for glory, gold… and restoration.

The challenges facing marine species and habitats are both daunting and well documented. Studies show that around the globe we have seen a loss of 85% of oyster reefs, 50% loss in mangroves, 90% of all coral reefs are threatened and 97% of rivers are dammed by structures that block fish like salmon and sturgeon from returning from the ocean to their freshwater spawning grounds to produce the next generation.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the species and habitats that are left are also in poor condition. A recent study co-authored by Nature Conservancy scientists documented that in oysters today we see an 88% drop in biomass (the oyster’s “living tissue”) compared to oysters from the late 1800s.

Declines in oysters, salmon and corals can be traced to a number of factors — including poor water quality as the result of excess nutrient runoff (fertilizer from our farms, lawns and gardens and sewage from our cities), disease and loss of spawning and nursery habitat. In some cases, we loved them to death. The sea in its vastness was considered an inexhaustible resource. Photos from the boom years of oyster harvesting show men perched on giant, craggy mountains of recently harvested shell. I challenge you to find a similar photo from today.

But there is good news.

Restoration of coastal and marine habitats is happening right now across the U.S. Big chunks of restoration work are being done by the Conservancy and a whole host of partners, too numerous to mention here. With support from programs run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — like the Community-based Restoration Program (CRP) — communities get hands-on experience restoring a mix of marine, coastal and migratory fish habitats.

Salmon habitat restoration in construction in Fisher Slough, WA.

In 2008, building off the momentum and experience gained through our partnership with NOAA’s CRP, restoration went big. We took restoration to the next level through a series of eight projects funded by the Recovery Act administered by NOAA. We learned that restoration works not only for nature, but for people too.

With Nature Conservancy-led projects alone, for every 1 million dollar invested, we created on average over 33 jobs. When you look at other infrastructure jobs, such as building bridges or energy development, restoration jobs stack up pretty evenly and in some cases even exceed grey infrastructure jobs. These are jobs that can’t be exported to other countries!

In addition to jobs, economists have shown that restoration pays. In coastal Alabama, for every 1 million dollars spent on oyster reef restoration, 2 million dollars could be returned to the U.S. economy in increased fisheries alone.

The Conservancy recently released a retrospective, Restoration Works, highlighting some of the projects carried out over a decade of partnership with NOAA. Which reminds me, Labor Day is right around the corner, what better way to celebrate that restoration works? Support restoration efforts and NOAA’s Restoration Center by checking out NOAA’s website and discovering a project happening near you!

[Top image: Speed shell shoveling at the Oyster Olympics. Image source: Will Murtha/TNC. Bottom image: Salmon habitat restoration in construction in Fisher Slough, WA. Image source: Jenny Baker/TNC.]

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

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