Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Get action. Seize the moment. Man was never intended to become an oyster.”
Although you could interpret this to mean that oysters are lazy, this could not be further from the truth. More than just tasty treats on the half shell, oysters are hardworking and refined mollusks. They are the foundation for three-dimensional reef habitats that are vital for the health and well-being of our environment, economies and communities throughout the Gulf of Mexico.
Oyster reefs are the ugly ducklings of marine habitats, especially when compared to flamboyant coral reefs, silky seagrasses and stately mangroves. But underneath their scraggly exterior, they offer extraordinary gifts. Oysters provide essential services to our estuaries, bays and Gulf communities, but the importance of this species to our well-being goes unnoticed by most.
Let us celebrate National Oyster Day and take a deeper dive into the world of oysters.
Imagine a Gulf coastal town, a place buzzing with residents and tourists, each playing an important role in the community. The town’s buildings provide structure and shelter to protect the people that live there. This community depends on the services that each person provides in order to thrive. Now picture the world of an oyster reef, a habitat that is an essential part of the Gulf system, humming with marine residents and visitors. A living structure that cleans, protects, shelters, and feeds. As a resident species, one that doesn’t migrate with the seasons or tides, the oyster provides a variety of valuable services for nature and people.
Oyster reefs are nature’s cleaners. Each oyster can filter 20 gallons or more of water a day, removing nutrients such as nitrogen. A healthy reef made up of hundreds of oysters filtering hundreds of gallons of water a day provides an invaluable service, keeping our Gulf waters clean. This means clean water for resident and visiting fish, crabs, and shrimp, as well as clean water where we can swim and fish.
Oyster reefs are nature’s armor. Like the oyster’s sharp, hard outer shell that helps protect their soft bodies, oyster reefs form a hard barrier that helps protect coastal habitats like seagrasses, mangroves and saltmarsh. It also acts as a buffer for our fragile shorelines, protecting our coastal communities from erosion caused by the forces of daily waves, storms and sea level rise.
Oyster reefs are nature’s grocery store. The nooks and crannies of oyster reefs offer important nursery and shelter areas for many of the Gulf’s residents and migratory species of fish, shrimp and crabs.
These fish, shrimp and crabs then become food for other animals such as birds, larger crabs and fish. And marine creatures aren’t the only ones that benefit from this bounty. People enjoy oysters too, served on the half shell, fried, stewed or stuffed.
In communities across the Gulf, oysters are a symbol of our coastal heritage and have been at the core of our Gulf’s culture and communities for centuries. A world without oysters would be a world with fewer fish, fewer fishermen, more coastal erosion and fewer oyster roasts at family gatherings.
Today, global estimates show an 85 percent loss of oyster reefs from known historical levels and nearly the same decline, or more, is mirrored in the Gulf of Mexico’s estuaries and bays. Perhaps this is why conservationists find ourselves playing catch-up to restore oyster habitat, while also working to identify ways to manage oyster reefs sustainably to ensure that they can once again provide a full suite of services to maintain a healthy Gulf environment, economy and community.
The humble oyster perfectly illustrates the deep connection between the environment and our well-being. Our way of life depends on a healthy environment. Celebrate National Oyster Day by lending a helping hand to one of numerous efforts to restore reefs across the Gulf.
The extraordinary gray oyster is too valuable to us, beyond being delicious on the half shell, to ignore any longer.
Anne Birch is the marine conservation director for The Nature Conservancy in Florida. She is collaborating with partners in Florida and across the Gulf of Mexico on protection and restoration of priority estuarine habitats, with a focus on oyster reefs. National Oyster Day is Tuesday.