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A Blue View: Bringing Oysters Back from the Brink

by John Racanelli, Chief Executive Officer

Published August 21, 2013

A Blue View is a weekly perspective on the life aquatic, hosted by National Aquarium CEO John Racanelli.

From the smallest plants and animals invisible to the human eye to entire ecosystems, every living thing depends on and is intricately linked by water.

Tune in to 88.1 WYPR every Tuesday at 5:45 p.m. as John brings to the surface important issues and fascinating discoveries making waves in the world today.

August 21, 2013: Bringing Oysters Back from the Brink

Click here to listen to John discuss the critical role oyster reefs play in maintaining a healthy Chesapeake Bay!

Oysters are a huge part of the Chesapeake Bay culture—its past, present, and future. Even the name “Chesapeake” means “great shellfish bay” in Algonquin. Yet since the early part of the 1900s, oyster populations have been in crisis.

The health of oyster populations in the Bay is critical to providing habitat for aquatic animals, supporting feeding grounds for migratory birds, and enhancing water quality as oysters filter their food from the water. An adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day. To put this in perspective, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration points out that oysters once were able to filter the entire Chesapeake Bay in a week. Today, it takes a year.

Researchers are beginning to understand the importance of oyster reefs in protecting coastal areas. Along with coral reefs, wetlands, dunes, and other coastal habitats, oyster reefs actually help prevent erosion, reduce the impact of storm surges, and protect against sea level rise. In fact, part of New York City’s $19-billion-dollar plan to combat the effects of climate change includes building large underwater oyster reefs around the harbor.

Over time, oyster populations have been devastated by over-fishing, disease, pollution, habitat destruction, and urban runoff. NOAA reports that the oyster population of the Chesapeake today is less than 1 percent of its historical level. In fact, oyster harvesting peaked in the 1880s, when 20 million bushels were harvested in a single year. In 2012, only 135,000 bushels were harvested from the Bay…less than one percent of those historic levels.

Still, all hope is not lost, and efforts are underway to solve the Chesapeake Bay’s oyster problem. These include an ambitious plan to restore oyster populations throughout the area by spreading hundreds of thousands of tons of granite and old oyster shells along Harris Creek, a tributary of the Choptank River. Shells seeded with baby oysters are then placed on this substrate using a high-pressure hose. Then, nature is left to do its work. Watch this video to learn more about the project:

The Chesapeake Bay region isn’t the only one looking to improve the prospects for oysters. In New Jersey, for example, an advocacy group called ReClam the Bay is caring for seven oyster nurseries in the hopes of helping populations in Barnegat Bay to recover. Protected nurseries allow the oysters to grow without the risk of predators dining on them. Visitors are welcome to come by these nurseries and get their hands wet in what ReClam the Bay hopes will be an educational opportunity that will encourage people to make better choices for the health of the shellfish populations and the bay.

Out on the West Coast, efforts to save Oregon’s only native oyster species, the Olympia, have proven largely successful. Though previously declared “functionally extinct,” after 8 years of work by the Nature Conservancy and watermen, the 1.5 million oysters now inhabiting Netarts Bay seem to be reproducing successfully.

In Maryland, a “No Shell Left Behind” oyster recycling tax credit of one dollar a bushel became official on July 1. Its aim is to encourage the recycling of valuable oyster shells to help restore oyster populations in the Chesapeake Bay. Empty shells, which are necessary for hatcheries to replenish the oyster population, are extremely valuable, as each shell can host up to 10 young oysters, known as “spat.”

You can play a part in this, too! Whether by recycling oyster shells, participating in Chesapeake Bay conservation events, or even running in next year’s “Sprint for Spat” 5K race, sponsored by the Oyster Recovery Partnership, get involved! A healthy oyster population helps us all.

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