Oysters are Habitat-Forming

Credits to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources for the headline. It was spotted on a sign in Charleston Harbor, pointing out a local oyster restoration project.

Oysters on the half-shell at Amen Street Bar in Charleston.
Oysters on the half-shell at Amen Street Bar in Charleston.

The importance of oysters as more than a mouth-watering delight is sparking  renewed interest in the bivalve. Oysters filter and clean vast amounts of water. Put them in a tank of typical Florida estuary (near shore) water, wait a day, and the water will be clean. Move oysters from dirty water to clean water, and in two weeks, they are completely safe to eat (a very neat trick; tainted nutrients we eat tend to stay in us a long time, even forever. Not the oyster. What goes in, really does come back out).

Oyster bars — the kind in the water, not the Amen Street bar in Charleston — are hugely significant environmentally, doing everything from blunting the force of bad weather and providing food and shelter to other marine critters, to capturing CO2. That’s right, even “climate change” is aided and abetted by the oyster, which removes CO2 from the water and turns it into calcium carbonate — literally the oyster shell.

Not surprisingly, for a long time, we have done not been doing right by oysters. New York Harbor, for example, used to be almost brimful of them. Apalachicola Bay in Florida, one of the most southerly oyster harvest sites, has been suffering for years, as far-upstream Atlanta siphons off more and more of the freshwater oysters need to thrive.

While it’s certainly true that a desire to make a buck from oysters was at the root of the significant declines we’ve been seeing in oyster production, it’s equally true that the decline could not have happened without the help (or hindrance) of government. Pretty much everyplace you care to look where oysters have suffered, government has permitted the problem, usually with the best of intentions, but oftentimes not.

Oystermen working an oyster “relay,” where oysters are moved from conditionally closed areas to open water where they can be harvested in a few weeks. Relays can be good employment when many oysterbeds are seasonally closed.

Now we’re in a time when rebuilding oysters is the marine ’cause du jour’. Lots of proposals are seeking funding — including one of ours — and many groups, from the Ocean Conservancy to the Nature Conservancy to SeaGrant, are urging action to restore oysters. In September, the US Department of Commerce finally declared a “fisheries disaster” for Florida panhandle oysters, largely in response to the collapse of oystering in Apalachicola Bay, which was already hurt by reduced water flow and then hammered by the 2010 Gulf oil spill.

But — there’s hardly any funding yet for any of the proposed projects. The bit that’s been made available, through the National Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA, a Federal-state program that funds restoration of resources damaged by oil spills and the like), has yet to be spent. Three years into what’s called “early restoration,” and nothing’s happened so far.

Eventually, funds will flow and some improvements will be made. Unfortunately, for too many of the men and women who have been struggling to make ends meet in the oyster industry, too little will come too late.

We’re trying to help speed things up. Wish us — and the people whose livelihoods depend on it — luck.