Fish & Fisheries

For the Love of Oysters

February 11, 2016

As the sun sets over Helen Wood Park 23,000 bags of oysters line the edge of a mud flat on Mobile Bay in Alabama. Photo © 2011 Erika Nortemann/TNC

I’ve been in a love affair with oysters for nearly 20 years.

I get a little giddy when I see people enjoying our locally-farmed, boutique oysters in my adopted hometown of Mobile, Alabama. I find myself wanting to inspect the shape of their little bodies and perfection in the shape of their shell. I get the same feeling when I see crusty clumps of thriving oysters attached to reefs and pilings along our Gulf bays and estuaries. I’ve worked to restore shellfish for nearly 20 years, and I feel as much love and affection for these little bivalves today as I did when I started.

About my love affair: On my first research trip out to an oyster reef to check on the progress of a restoration project, I realized how amazing the Eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica) really is. Oysters are one of the unsung heroes of the marine world. 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. These hard working shellfish not only help improve the water quality and ecosystem health of our bays and estuaries, but the tens of thousands of oyster shells that make the foundation of oyster reefs also form natural barriers that can help reduce storm waves and mitigate the effects of sea-level rise. They also act as habitat for juvenile commercial fish, forage fish and other marine life like blue crab, shrimp and rockfish. In other words, these mollusks are a marine biologist’s dream come true.

Image © Erica Sloniker/TNC

Sadly, a staggering 85 percent of the Earth’s oyster reefs have been lost since the late 1800s. Overharvesting, pollution, disease, drought and degraded habitat are some of the threats that have made oyster reefs the single most imperiled marine habitat on the planet. Across North America, The Nature Conservancy has worked to revive oyster habitat through science-based restoration at more than 80 sites, including San Francisco Bay, Washington’s Puget Sound, Chesapeake Bay, New York and along much of the Gulf of Mexico.

The Conservancy has been working with partners since 2009 to strengthen our investment in shellfish restoration. We are often asked, “How many oysters is enough?” We typically respond, “What do you want your oysters to do?” To answer this question, we are focusing on the ecosystem services that oyster reefs provide — from protection against damaging waves and storms, to improving water quality and clarity and enhancing habitat for marine wildlife.

Image © Erica Sloniker/TNC

In December 2015, Conservancy Research Fellow Dr. Philine zu Ermgassen published a paper in the Journal of Applied Ecology demonstrating that the addition of oyster reefs in the Gulf of Mexico and the Mid- and South Atlantic substantially boosted the numbers of important fish and crustacean species, including blue crab, stone crab, sheepshead and toadfish. The study estimates that each acre of oyster reef restored will provide an average of 3,544 extra pounds of fish per year. That’s the amount of fish and shellfish that more than 240 U.S. adults would consume in one year. This data will help us set goals for restoration monitoring programs and help us communicate the value of restoring and conserving coastal habitats to coastal communities.

So I plan to continue my love affair with these miraculous, hardworking little bivalves. They are, after all, working for the greater good of our oceans and coasts. If you want to learn more about our work with oysters and restoration, you can find videos and stories here.

Image © Erica Sloniker/TNC

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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 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.

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  1. Jenn, I really enjoyed your article and would love to take you out to see my Oyster Farm in Wakulla County. So much is happening with Oyster Aquaculture here in the GULF, but much more needs to happen to advance it in sustainable, and productive ways!

  2. Jenn,
    I share your love of oysters, too. I’m a big proponent of sustainable fisheries/”marine farms”. Your article is more proof of the benefits of this approach. On many of my trips into Baja California, we always stop at the oyster farms in the bay of San Quintin, on the way further south . It’s amazing the progress they’ve made and what has been done for the community, by establishing a new direction in renewable fisheries. There are so many places that could do the same. They just need the training and initiative.