Oysters! Oysters Oysters!

Oysters! Oysters Oysters!

By Kenny Fletcher

A thriving Chesapeake Bay and healthy Potomac River depend on water-filtering oysters. But there’s so much more to know about our favorite bivalve.

The Eastern Oyster has long been an iconic part of our region’s culture, cuisine, and ecology. But harvesting pressure, combined with loss of reef habitat, pollution, and disease, has decimated the oyster population to just a tiny fraction of historic levels.

For more than 100 years, watermen along the Chesapeake Bay and lower Potomac River have made their living harvesting oysters for resale to restaurants and seafood wholesale companies. Until the mid-1980s, oystering was the most valuable commercial fishery in the Bay. After oyster stocks crashed, crabbing became a more lucrative fishery in much of the Bay.

Fortunately, a growing aquaculture industry in the Chesapeake is now bringing delicious farmed oysters to our tables, while at the same time benefitting the environment. By eating locally farmed oysters from Virginia and Maryland, you’re supporting local businesses and healthy waterways.

Oysters also have tremendous ecological value, which may be the most important benefit they provide. Sediment and nitrogen cause problems in Bay waters. Oysters filter these pollutants either by consuming them or shaping them into small packets, which are deposited on the bottom where they are not as harmful. A single adult oyster can filter as much as 50 gallons of water a day.

The oysters in the Chesapeake could once filter a volume of water equal to that of the entire Bay (about 19 trillion gallons) in a week. Today, it would take the remaining Bay oysters more than a year.

Anyone who fishes in brackish waters knows that oyster reefs are among the best fishing spots because they are teeming with life that attract large predator fish, such as striped bass and sea trout. The hard surfaces of oyster shells and the nooks between the shells provide places where small marine animals find shelter.

Hundreds of animals use oyster bars: grass shrimp, amphipods, bryozoans, anemones, barnacles, oyster drills, hooked mussels, mud crabs, and red beard sponge, to name a few. These in turn serve as food for larger fish and animals.

Fortunately, oyster restoration efforts to rebuild this important reef habitat have greatly accelerated in recent years across the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal rivers.

The Chesapeake Oyster Alliance has launched a bold new goal of adding 10 billion new oysters to the Bay by 2025. This broad coalition of organizations, non-profits, businesses, and educational institutions hopes to reach this goal through expanded restoration activities, fishery replenishment, and the continued growth of the oyster aquaculture industry.

There are many ways you can help beyond eating locally raised oysters. That includes recycling oyster shells for use on new reefs, volunteering for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s oyster restoration efforts, or advocating for state and federal investment in oyster restoration. If you have access to a dock on brackish water you can even grow your own oysters to be planted on sanctuary reefs. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is offering workshops throughout tidalTidewater Virginia this summer, visit www.cbf.org/vaoystergardening.

Want to take a fun first step right now? Test your knowledge of this fascinating local critter by taking the oyster quiz. The first two questions are below.

Oysters might be encased in immovable hard shells, but they’re hiding a very flexible secret. They can actually change which of these things?

a. Their sex—they start as male and turn female later in life.
b. Their location—oysters have a “mid-life crisis” and detach during their adult lifecycle.
c. Their diets—depending on the water salinity, some oysters consume radically different types of food.
d. Their dreams—oysters are ruthlessly ambitious.

Oysters have achieved great notoriety…for all the work they do cleaning up the Bay. But do you know what all the whispers and rumors are based on?

a. Oysters filter up to 50 gallons of water each day!
b. Since they spit out nitrogen for bacteria to eat, they stop the nitrogen from fueling algae that clogs up the Bay.
c. Those oyster reefs are also awesome homes for crabs, fish, and other creatures.
d. Those dang overachievers—it’s all of the above.

Find out if your answers about our beloved Bay bivalve are correct and finish the quiz at www.cbf.org/oysterquiz.

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